The Scientific Activist

Back in August, I and several others in the scientific community expressed skepticism over Nature paper (subscription required) describing a new technique billed by the media as generating “ethically sound” stem cells. The technique involved removing a single cell from an eight-cell blastula and using this cell to derive a line of stem cells while allowing the remaining cells to grow and develop normally, without any apparent damage to the embryo. This “watered down” approach to generating stem cells didn’t seem to convince other scientists, and it apparently (although not surprisingly) didn’t go far enough for the hardcore anti-research religious extremists.

This topic has resurfaced again this week, as a newly-revised paper, authored by Klimanskaya et al., appears in the current issue of Nature. (It was originally an advanced online publication on August 23rd.) The new version is almost identical to the original, except for a few minor changes described in an addendum and a new supplementary information document. The changes, in addition to adding more information, serve primarily to tone down some of the paper’s conclusions, particularly the ones that led to its initial overhype in the media. These changes seem appropriate, and probably should have been in the original version.

I’ll stress as I did before that my main problem here was with the media coverage of the paper, not so much with the paper itself. However, my initial skepticism remains. For a detailed account of the scientific issues/questions at play here, read Jake’s initial post on the issue at Pure Pedantry. For a brief summary, though, here’s what I originally wrote:

When it comes down to it, this technique appears unsatisfactory for ending the current debate either way you look at it. If the technique is validated, and it can in fact produce 100% totipotent embryonic stem cell lines without harming the original embryo, this would mean that the cell used to generate the stem cell line would itself be capable of developing into a human embryo under the right conditions. Since the opposition to embryonic stem cell research generally takes the very narrow view that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of a fully grown and developed human being, this probably won’t due much to appease these opponents. Remember, these people prefer to let the extra embryos generated by in vitro fertilization procedures go to waste, instead of using them to generate much needed human embryonic stem cell lines.

On the other hand, if the technique is demonstrated to be significantly less effective than traditional means of harvesting human embryonic stem cells–as seems to be the case–then it is not an acceptable alternative. Although this method shows more promise that some of the other alternatives previously proposed, including creating genetically-altered embryos incapable of completing development, it remains imperative that we continue to try to make the case for the accepted and proven techniques of generating human embryonic stem cells. Instead of giving in to religious zealots, we should instead make sure the ethical debate is fully informed.

I still stand by this argument, and I think it’s been borne out in reality pretty well, especially since The Southern Baptist Convention eventually expressed its opposition to the technique.


  1. #1 quitter
    November 24, 2006

    Agreed. How much time will be lost appeasing the minority of vocal religious zealots who oppose this research?

    We’re losing patent-rights, basic research insights, and delaying potential treatments. It’s depressing. We’re ceding the scientific future to other countries for the first time in decades. And the funny thing is, if we kept a hand in this research the U.S. would be in more of a position to regulate the ethics of using these cells, but since we’ve removed ourselves from the game the research will continue and we’ll actually have less control over the ethical use of stem cells. The zealots are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

  2. #2 anon
    December 7, 2006

    “hardcore anti-research religious extremists”?

    why aren’t the pro stem cell ppl like yourself “hardcore pro-research secular extremists”? or at minimum “hardcore pro-research extremists”?

    seems like the religiously motivated and the anti-stem cell ppl (two groups that aren’t by definition identical) are both similarly unwilling to compromise on half-measures. or am i missing something obvious? i often am it seems

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    December 7, 2006

    The key issue is that the potential of embryonic stem cell research is backed up by hard scientific evidence, and the opponents to this research, blinded by ideology attack it on non-scientific grounds. Although the current study should certainly be followed up, it has not scientifically proven itself a suitable alternative to traditional embryonic stem cell research.

  4. #4 anon
    December 8, 2006

    “blinded by ideology”? that’s a trusty phrase, but isn’t a lot of life not science? arent’ there things such as ethics and values and beliefs and rights? is that ideology? sometimes maybe it iss

    i agree that untrammelled stem cell research is a surer route to fixing medical issues than any alternative proposed by its opponents, but the reason the debate isn’t working is because pro stem cell people don’t respect anti stem cell people. the terms of the debate are not excllusively what will advance science, the terms of the debate are what we as a society should do.

    and the scientific community recognizes that basic assumption, of course, so let’s apply it to this issue as well, and argue that opponents of stem cells are wrong for what society needs, not that they’re blinded by ideology or that they’re hard-core religious extremists. unless of course you’re just preaching to the converted and not really interested in affecting change.

    both extremes seem equally uncompromising. yeah those that dismiss the research for religious reasons are wrong. but those that conflate all opponents of stem cell research with religiouos zealots are just also wrong, and are also self-defeatingly making their opponents defensive. if you want to be taken seriously by people of all political stripes, if you want to be persuasive and not just confirm blue state bias, then take an extra fifteen seconds at the end of your posts and delete the condescending rhetoric. a) because it’s just cliche-ridden bad writing and b) because it’s unecessary.

  5. #5 Nick Anthis
    December 8, 2006

    I think that the anti-science community has gotten used to being pandered to by the recent generation of conservative politicians, but they should not expect the same from scientists.

  6. #6 anon
    December 8, 2006

    “anti-science community”? — or just uncommitted to stem cells? why so adamant about using phrases that alienate people that disagree with you?

    if you want to cut those that disagree w you out of the debate that’s fine. but then you’re not really part of the debate either. what’s the relevance of talking to yourself? say the same thing but just say it differently. but do whatever you want. your blog your rules

  7. #7 anon
    December 8, 2006

    an implicit assumption in what i wrote is that the key goal is not science for its own sake. it should bow to humanitarian concerns, right? or at least be moderated when there are strong social reasons against it. that’s a pretty basic idea. the stem cell debate can be frustrating, but when you say things like “anti-science” to describe people who are proposing social restrictions you make your readers wonder if you recognize that scientists keen on advancing science for its own sake do sometimes need to be restrained. some restrictions are allowed, and a dialogue needs to be allowed without accusing them of being jesus freaks. it could get pretty monstrous if you didn’t recognize that. but maybe you don’t. not all scientists do. was it the south korean stem cell researcher who kept himself supplied by eggs by making his female researchers take fertility drugs to increase the number of eggs he maed them donate each month? science at all costs!

    obviously not. but your rhetoric makes it seem like that’s not obvious. and it’s hard to take that seriously

    but of course i wouldn’t be at your blog if i didn’t find it interesting

  8. #8 Nick Anthis
    December 9, 2006


    One thing I should clarify is that I use the term “anti-science community” as a sort of short hand, not in order to ascribe a motivation to a group of people. Clearly, those who I lump into this category don’t “hate science”, rather they have their own reasons for opposing scientific progress, whether they be religious or otherwise.

    Depending on the issue, actually, I think I provide pretty nuanced commentary that balance humanitarian concerns with scientific concerns (and generally place the humanitarian concerns on the highest pedestal). Check out my posts on transgenic crops, for example. On the issue of embryonic stem cell research, though, there certainly are issues left to debate, but the debate currently occurring in the public sphere (over whether federal funding for this research should be outlawed) is not the debate that we should be having. The advocates of keeping funding for this research illegal certainly have no scientific legitimacy and I don’t see any humanitarian legitimacy there either.

    So, if I don’t get to participate in that “debate” I’m not going to lose too much sleep over that. On the other hand, I’ll certainly continue to advocate for research and I’m open to debating the more legitimate topics, such as those you mentioned.

  9. #9 Stem Cell Research
    December 18, 2006

    First of all, I agree with anon above. The reason why we perform this type of research is to improve the “human experiance.” Not just to make us healthier. While some do believe that it is ok, others do not. Afterall, there are obvious ethical issues with killing a few people with untested drugs and treatments, even if it could lead to saving more lives. That being said, I do like science and I believe a blind opposition to science isn’t correct (such as many of the founders of “science” being killed by a church for going against the established doctrine. Obviously both of these are extremes, but I’m not sure that just because someone doesn’t support embryonic stem cell research that they are impeding science.
    My question has to do with the paper that you reference. Is it possible that they could make the cells which they extract from the embryo’s a suitable replacement of the embryonic stem cells used today. It seems to me, if that were possible it could be an appropriate compromise since a life is not taken, but research can be conducted. Do you think there is any future to this specific type of research.

  10. #10 Nick Anthis
    December 19, 2006

    I think that if these cell lines were demonstrated to be as effective as standard lines, then I think scientists would accept the technique. However, that is currently not the case.

  11. #11 zhongliu
    April 21, 2007