The Scientific Activist

ResearchBlogging.orgThe conclusion stated in the title of this post may seem painfully obvious, but a new study published in Cell Stem Cell by Aaron Levine (assistant professor at Georgia Tech and author of Cloning: A Beginner’s Guide) backs it up with some hard data.

To come to this conclusion, Levine compared a country’s output of peer-reviewed publications from 1998 to 2006 related to human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) with it’s overall biomedical science publication output during that period. As a control, he also compared these two values with the country’s output of publications related to RNA interference (RNAi)–a line of research that is not politically or ethically charged. The data set for hESCs included all papers citing the initial hESC isolation paper by Thomson et al., the data set for RNAi included all papers citing the original RNAi paper by Fire et al., and the general data set included all papers citing any of 50 research papers randomly selected from a list of influential papers published in 1998. For each paper within each data set, the address of the corresponding author was used to determine which nation to credit that paper to. Results were then presented as each nation’s percent contribution to each data set.

The results are quite informative. As expected, there is very little difference between a nation’s output in general biomedical research and its output in RNAi research. There are, however, quite substantial differences between general output and hESC output. Five countries had a statistically significantly higher percentage of hESC research output compared to general research. In descending order, they are the UK, Israel, China, Singapore, and Australia. The UK produced 6% of the biomedical research publications in general, but 11% of the hESC publications (a differential of 5%). With the exception of Australia, all of these countries had very supportive and non-restrictive hESC research policies over the period of the study–allowing the creation of new hESC lines by somatic cell nuclear transfer and providing significant amounts of funding for hESC research.

On the other side, four countries had a significantly lower percentage of hESC research output compared to general research: the US, Japan, France, and Switzerland. Scientists in the US produced a very impressive 46% of the general biomedical research output, but just 36% of the hESC research output. This differential of -10% is much larger than the value for any other nation–partly due to the fact that the US produced a much larger proportion of total research than any other nation. Two of these nations–France and Japan–both have lower RNAi research contributions compared to their general biomedical research contributions, so they show a general deficiency in “hot” new areas of research. Switzerland, in contrast, only legalized hESC research in 2004–much too late to significantly influence these results. If the study was conducted sometime in the future, Switzerland would likely perform much better. But, its restrictive policies leading up to 2004 appear to have held it back significantly.

The US, however, is quite an interesting case. On one hand, the US produced more hESC research publications than any other nation. On the other hand, though, the US was the most significant underperformer when this output was compared to its general biomedical research output. This is likely due to the fact that generous federal funding of science in the US drives a very large output of research in general. Quite a bit of research on hESCs still occurs, but, due to the Bush Administration’s restrictions on federal funding of hESCs, this output is greatly diminished from what it should be.

Another interesting aspect of this study comes from an what could be considered an artifact in the methods. As Levine points out, he didn’t actually count papers that published results on hESCs, but papers that cited the original hESC paper. Therefore–as he once again acknowledges–he’s actually counting papers related to hESC research. Therefore, his results are much more open to interpretation than they would be otherwise. This could be quite interesting, because his results could indicate that restrictive policies inhibit research that’s even just related to hESCs. Or, it could just mean that the results would actually be more extreme if he only counted papers actually presenting results on human embryonic stem cells (which isn’t as interesting). Additional research would be required to determine which scenario is actually occurring.

So, the take-home message here is that science policy matters–particularly with regards to hESCs. Levine’s article pretty clearly correlates hESC research output with national policies. The UK, with it’s very pro-active agenda in this area has performed strongly. In contrast, the US has not lived up to its potential, due to the Bush Administration’s restrictions on federally funding hESC research. By virtue of its large and productive biomedical research apparatus the US is still producing a decent amount of hESC research in absolute terms. However, it could be doing much better. Without a major change toward more supportive policies, though, it’s hard to imagine that the US would improve on this front at all. More likely, the US will eventually begin to slip behind.


Levine, A.D. (2008). Identifying Under- and Overperforming Countries in Research Related to Human Embryonic Stem Cells. Cell Stem Cell, 2, 521-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2008.05.008


Update: Read more about the article (including the author’s perspective on his work) in my follow-up post.

Comments

  1. #1 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    Nationalism (jingoism) is a sort of bias that has no (legitimate) place in science. Concern that the USA is “slipping” isn’t a good “reason” to support additional federal funding of hESCR.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    That’s not really the point here. Instead, it’s that because of the US’s large and advanced research apparatus, the US could be spurring much greater advances in this field than it already is–something that benefits everyone, not just the US.

  3. #3 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    Well, it was the concluding thought of your post.

    If US citizens who (like me) are in favor of hESCR put half as much effort as is expended complaining about federal restrictions into organizing and supporting private initiatives to pursue this research, there would also be significantly more of it being done.

    That researchers and their supporters can’t imagine any reasonable alternative to federal funding suggests that they haven’t yet applied their intelligence to the problem.

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    Well, clearly that isn’t the case, since private and state-level funding is currently supporting this research in the US. However, it has clearly had a negative effect, and it’s absurd for unscientific fringe concerns to guide our science policy.

  5. #5 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    “…it’s absurd for unscientific fringe concerns to guide our science policy.”

    True. But it’s not at all absurd for there to be constraints on federal funding of activities that a significant percentage of citizens find morally objectionable. That’s only to be expected in a society that pays more than lip service to ideas like “freedom of conscience.” And, even though I support hESCR, my support doesn’t extend to trampling on liberal principles.

  6. #6 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    Fair enough, but a large majority of Americans support expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Here’s one poll that I know of off of the top of my head, but polls have consistently showed this.

    So, if the current US stem cell policy isn’t guided by science, and if on top of that it goes against the will of the people, then what’s it based on?

  7. #7 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    First, the principle of freedom of conscience was embraced by traditional liberalism precisely to protect minorities. Crude majoritarianism is, well, crude.

    Second, policy, including science policy, is about how we want the world to be. Science is about how the world is. It doesn’t provide the sort of “guidance” you’re talking about.

  8. #8 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    So, are you saying that science policy should not be guided by the current state of the science, the direction that the scientists believe the work needs to move in, and how this science can best be developed and put into use for the benefit of society? If that’s not what should guide science policy, I’m not sure what’s left.

  9. #9 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    No, I said nothing at all about what should or should not guide science policy. I only remarkied that science itself does not tell us what science policies we should adopt.

    Obviously, what scientists working in a particular area think is most likely to advance our knowledge is a relevant consideration, given that the decision has already been taken to advance knowledge in that area. On the other hand, what working scientists think is of benefit to society is no more deserving of consideration than what non-scientists think about such matters. And when scientists approach non-scientists seeking support, the values of those being asked to pay the bills are certainly relevant.

    Both scientific/epistemic values and non-scientific values are important for framing good science policies. Conflating them, however, will more lilkely than not result in very bad science policies.

  10. #10 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    OK, well let my pose my earlier question again:

    So, if the current US stem cell policy isn’t guided by science, and if on top of that it goes against the will of the people, then what’s it based on?

  11. #11 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    As a political cynic, I think I’m quite safe in answering that science policy in the US, like science policy everywhere else, is based on what policy-makers think will enhance their own power and positions. If you’re any sort of student of politics, that will not come as a surprise.

    That said, simply repeating your question without clarifying what you mean by “guided by science” or “against the will of the people” is unhelpful. Do you have a coherent view of such matters?

  12. #12 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    Bob,

    My goal here is not to pick a fight with you over this, I promise. In short, what I’m saying is that the Bush stem cell funding restrictions are not guided by scientific concerns by any stretch of the imagination. And, they violate the will of the people–in that the majority of Americans support increased funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Of course, neither aspect on its own would by necessity indicate that this policy is wrong (or even out of the political norm), although either one should raise warning flags. The combination of both aspects, though, is particularly striking.

    In determining what has guided this policy, the only factors that I find to have likely heavily influenced this policy are the personal religious beliefs of the President and others in his administration and the Bush Administration’s desire to pander to the Religious Right. I do not consider either of those to be a valid justification for a scientific policy. Maybe you disagree with me there, but unless you have an alternative explanation for this policy, I don’t really see where this discussion is heading.

  13. #13 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    Nick – I’m not looking for a fight, either. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be less than critical in my response to your ruminations about the political dimensions of stem cell research, or about science policy more generally conceived.

    You seem(ed) to be claiming that if policy was guided by science there would be fewer restrictions on federal funding of hESCR. I’ve been pressing you to clarify in what sense “guidance by science” would have such implications. The connection isn’t at all obvious. And your appeal to majoritarian considerations at the expense of liberal principles only raises more questions about how you think science policy should be formulated.

    As I said, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I am, however, trying to nudge you toward a more nuanced view of science policy.

  14. #14 Nick Anthis
    June 5, 2008

    Firstly, I’m certainly not “appealing to majoritarian considerations at the expense of liberal principles.” I find the claim that restricting hESC research–and only restricting hESC research–follows liberal principles quite a stretch. At the very least, it needs more fleshing out, but such a claim appears to me on the surface that it would be based on pretty fundamental philosophical differences.

    You say: “You seem(ed) to be claiming that if policy was guided by science there would be fewer restrictions on federal funding of hESCR.” Absolutely I am. Is this not an intrinsically obvious point?

  15. #15 bob koepp
    June 5, 2008

    1. In referece to the freedom of conscience of citizens who harbor moral objections to hESCR, I stated, “And, even though I support hESCR, my support doesn’t extend to trampling on liberal principles.” Your response was, “Fair enough, but a large majority of Americans support expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.” Please explain how this is not “appealing to majoritarian considerations at the expense of liberal principles.”

    2. I nowhere claimed, nor even suggested, that “restricting hESC research–and only restricting hESC research–follows liberal principles.” First, it appears that you’re conflating restricting hESCR and restricting federal funding of such research. Only the latter is restricted. Second, even if that conflation is only apparent and accidental, I made no claims that hESCR was in any way uniqe in this regard. Who’s stretching?

    3. If it’s obvious, even intrinsically so(!), that policy guided by science would result in fewer restrictions on federal funding of hESCR, then please indulge my ignorance by explaining the obvious. What I’m looking for is a plausible, defensible interpretation of ‘guided by science’ that would obviate the implications for policy. That seems a reasonable request.

  16. #16 Nick Anthis
    June 6, 2008

    As this debate seems to be moving in circles, I really don’t see any point in pursuing it further.

  17. #17 Coriolis
    June 6, 2008

    Bob you may want to explain how exactly restricting hESCR research is in any way, shape or form a violation of any liberal principle.

    And as for why there would be no restrictions placed from a policy based upon scientific considerations that is simply because the only scientific reason to restrict research is if it appears to be worthless and uninteresting. And even then there would be no blanket restriction, it would just be harder to prove that you are doing worthwhile research in a grant.

  18. #18 bob koepp
    June 7, 2008

    Coriolis – Please note the distinction between restricting hESCR and restricting federal funding of hESCR. The former would, indeed, be contrary to the liberal principle of freedom of inquiry (far from defending such restrictions, I’ve opposed them whenever they’ve been proposed). Restrictions on federal funding, in contrast, might be necessary to avoid conflicts with the liberal principle of freedom of conscience, since federal funding compels support from citizens with moral objections to hESCR. (Just to be clear, as I understand the principle of freedom of conscience, it is meant to constrain policies that would compel people to act contrary to their sincerely held moral beliefs.) That’s certainly not the end of the matter, as there might be sound reasons to compel such support. But that requires careful arguments which begin, at least, with the recognition of the potential for conflict between policies providing for federal funding of research and the freedom of conscience of those providing the funds.

    I agree that science provides no reasons to restrict this research. But that’s not to the point. The question is whether science provides reasons to expand federal funding of hESCR. I’ve been pressing for an explantion of how this is supposed to work, since reasons to expand funding would seem to be ethical/social/political reasons rather than scientific reasons.

    Such basic distinctions must be respected if discussions of science policy are going to generate more light than heat.

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