The Intersection

I’ve been going on and on lately about the adult stem cell partisans and what’s wrong with their arguments. But underlying those arguments, I suspect, is something deeper. These advocates just don’t seem to share the scientific mindset when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. Some of them, I speculate, may not even fully grasp why scientists want to see this research get done in the first place.

This reflection arose as I was reading Matt Nisbet’s blog, which directed me to a Washington Post commentary by a Harvard stem cell scientist that I would otherwise have missed. The piece is really about peer review, but I couldn’t help singling out this quotation in particular:

Stem cells have proved even more captivating than we could have imagined, and understanding the process by which a stem cell progressively differentiates into a specialized cell such as a neuron or a pancreas beta cell is perhaps the most compelling biology question for our generation.

This passage epitomizes what the adult stem cell promoters are missing about the drive behind embryonic stem cell research. It’s not just about cures, but rather about enlarging our knowledge about a fascinating area of developmental biology. It’s about scientific curiosity, passion, an urge for discovery.

True, scientists think that cures will result from embryonic stem cell research somewhere down the road. And accordingly, they’ve allowed the research to be sold to the public in this manner (not without some regrets, I’m sure). But when it comes to embryonic stem cell research, many scientists are on an intellectual quest for understanding–for a comprehension of nothing less than how embryonic stem cells actually set in motion the creation of the body in the first place. And studying adult stem cells alone, although these cells may be interesting, will never ever get them there. Period.

But along come the adult stem cell promoters, who have a very different agenda. In the main, they want restrictions on research. The research they don’t like has been sold by the media, by politicians, and by disease advocates on the basis of a promise of cures for diseases. So the adult stem cell cheerleaders start attacking the premise that’s most salient to them: the promise of cures. In the process, opportunistically, they wield scientific-sounding arguments, albeit very dubious ones. They say, we don’t need embryonic stem cell research to find cures because adult stem cells are showing great results, yada yada yada.

The scientists find this simply baffling–because, of course, the scientists aren’t merely disease advocates. They are intellectual explorers as well. So not only do they reject the notion that adult stem cells are somehow better than embryonic ones. Because the scientists are thinking in terms of how to increase our understanding, the concept of a certain type of stem cell research being “better” than another doesn’t even make sense to them in the first place. It’s mindboggling. It’s entirely alien.

What we really seem to be facing here, then, is a huge disconnect between researchers, disease advocates, and the anti-research crowd. And of course the media, a woefully imperfect translator, doesn’t help matters.

In this context, what we need is for everyone to be honest about their goals and expectations–and not seek to corral science in defense of a particular agenda that it can’t support. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened with the adult stem cell advocates. They are emphatically not the only guilty party here, though. The disease advocates have a strong incentive to hype the potential for cures, as do the politicians who support them.

However, I’m much more disturbed by the adult stem cell partisans, for the following reason. Embryonic stem cell research can certainly be hyped, but there’s no doubt that it’s inherently promising. So there’s a kernel of truth to the pro-cures perspective. By contrast, the anti-research notion that scientists should simply focus only on adult stem cells is not just argumentatively weak, but also seems to simply ignore or devalue the basic scientific quest for understanding. And that troubles me a very great deal indeed.


  1. #1 Thinker
    January 17, 2006

    Nice post on what drives the different groups! Looking at this internationally, I believe the “research climate” regarding embryonic stem cells here in the US will simply push that fundamental research to other countries. Even with publishing of results, the knowledge base and everything that goes with it will be built elsewhere.

  2. #2 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    January 17, 2006


    Should the ability of scientists to pursue their curiosity be limited in some instances? On stem cells the German government and people apparently think so, and they also think that there is potential in adult stem cell research:

    Is Germany ignoring or devaluing “the basic scientific quest for understanding”� Or is it possible that there are real trade-offs between different conceptions of societal goals?

    For example, surely scientists could do all sorts of fun things inventing “chimeras” — part human, part other animal. And not only would they get to pursue curiosity, they might find some applications that benefit people with diseases. But I’d bet most people would discount both the intellectual quest and the potential applications in the face of the obvious ethics issues associated with such research. I sure would.

    As the situation in Germany shows us, the stem cell debate is not about being pro- or anti- research (Would you really claim that Germany is anti-research?). It is all about values and where we decide to draw the line between permissible and impermissible research. That this debate takes place in the form of science, on both sides as you say, should be no surprise. I have no problem with stem cell research of any kind, but I also respect that others hold different values. Your efforts to segregate this issue into pro- and anti- research factions is just another form of scientizing what is at its core a debate about values. And scientizing politics is just another way to politicize science.

  3. #3 John
    January 17, 2006


    You post and the link are interesting, but ultimately unsatisfactory. Chris is saying that he wants embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) because it can a) help us understand human developmental biology better and b) might help us with various diseases. In both your post and the link, no one is really saying why they think ESCR is bad. We can’t talk about tradeoffs until anti-ESCR people really describe how ESCR can harm society. The basic feeling I get from anti-ESCR people is “[Something] makes me go ‘Ick’, therefore I think we shouldn’t do it”. Something like evolutionary theory making some people go “Ick. He’s saying there is no God.” We don’t let that feeling by itself tell what is and isn’t good public policy.

  4. #4 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    January 18, 2006


    You are right that the “ick factor” is central to understanding what research and what technologies are restricted — from nuclear power to GMOs to stem cell research. ASU just had a conference on this:

    I wrote an op-ed on this point here:

    It seems to me that to understand why some people seek to limit some areas of research it is necessary to first understand people’s values about that research, and not simply assume that they are simply pro- or anti- research.

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