The Bush administration isn’t the only government opposing the expansion of publicly-funded ESC research. This week, Germany joined with Poland, Austria, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia in opposing a EU proposal to allow public funding for ESC research on embryos left over from in vitro clinics. Germany is trying to rally Italy to join in the EU coalition opposing stem cell research.
The announcement features the multiple faces of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government when it comes to science. Just a week earlier, Dr. Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, wrote in SCIENCE magazine of the importance of scientific research to the future of Germany. In an Editorial in the July 14 issue, Merkel emphasizes the importance of science to economic development and societal progress: “The German government recognizes that our future lies in a knowledge-based society founded on freedom and responsibility. This is what will enable Germany to rise to the challenges of today’s world, be they national or global, or economic, social, or ecological in nature. That is why the promotion of science, research, and innovation is one of my top priorities.”
She also emphasizes that German scientists need greater freedom in developing research directions and programs: “We also plan to give science and research a freer hand. The task of government is to create conditions in which they can flourish and to provide the right kind of stimulus. That means that our universities and research institutions must be given more independence. They need greater freedom to choose their students and staff, develop their own profiles, cooperate with industry, and spend their funds as they see fit.”
Germany’s stand on embryonic stem cell research is another example that opposition to research is not necessarily a “luddite” or “anti-science” position. And this is where the complexity of the debate deepens. In the U.S. and Germany, many of the opponents of public financing of ESC, are also great supporters and patrons of science in other areas. Most of the public and the majority of policy-makers have a general deep support for science, believing that it makes lives better and is important for the economy. It is on particular issues like ESC research, where the general belief in science runs up against a competing value system like religion or a historical-cultural distate for genetic engineering, that consensus support for science breaks down.