Science policy is more than science

Yuval Levin has an editorial in today's WaPo that makes a very good point:

Science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so.

There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science. To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities -- economic, political and ethical -- in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty. And to govern the practice of scientific techniques that threaten to violate important moral boundaries is not only legitimate but in some cases essential.

You know, I agree with all that! It's worth reiterating that science is not a valid source of ethics or values for a society, and that science policy is not simply a tool to make more science. But two things bother me about this editorial.

First, Levin implies that in this case - Obama's stem cell order - there is a clear "important moral boundary" to be violated. There isn't. Instead, there is a messy, intractable moral morass. Some Americans see a fertilized egg as a person, but many others don't. The blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells are taken are minute and undifferentiated: featureless balls of cells that are routinely discarded as part of the IVF process and would go unnoticed if miscarried. That's probably why 60% of Americans approve of loosening the stem cell restrictions (more or less depending how the question is asked). Not even leaders of major religions can agree whether a blastocyst qualifies as a human life.

And it's not like Obama's memo on stem cells is a sea change. Keep in mind that GW Bush's so-called "ban on stem cell research" was no such thing - it was a ban on federally funded research involving embryonic stem cell lines besides those on an approved list. Obama's order frees federally funded researchers to work with lines not included on that list, although it still doesn't let them make new embryonic stem cell lines with federal research money (Congress has forbidden that). Even so, federal funding aside, it's been legal to make new stem cell lines with private funding all along! If there is a consistent moral boundary to be found in all of this, I sure don't see it.

Second, I don't think Levin can make a convincing case that Obama isn't appropriately balancing "facts against societal priorities -- economic, political and ethical" in his decision on stem cells. One can imagine situations in which scientific research could lead to valuable information, but would violate clear moral boundaries (and be opposed by an overwhelming majority of citizens). But I see absolutely no evidence in today's events to suggest that in such a case, the quest for information would trump moral concerns. In fact, based on the remarks, I think quite the opposite:

after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans - from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs - have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided


That sounds like a decision involving "a balancing of priorities and concerns" and "a judgment of needs and values" to me!

Levin's editorial seems to ascribe to the President an intent, or at least a tendency, to abdicate policy decisions to science. I'm peeved at Levin for portraying the President's decision this way, because I don't think he can make that case in this situation. And Levin's failure to make a convincing case devalues his legitimate concern about good science policy being about more than just science. That concern deserves some discussion - especially in a time when science is supposedly resuming "its rightful place" in the policy sphere.


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That's a great way to put it. I need to bookmark that passage for whenever I write posts about drugs of abuse. The leegalize-eet types always come out screaming about how absurd it is that the "facts" show this, that or the other about our inconsistent, hypocritical, etc drug policies. And they get irked that I stay away from policy implications. This editorial makes the point better than I can ever seem to.

So they're only allowed to use existing stem cell lines? As in stem cells that have already been "extracted" (I don't know the appropriate term)?

I definitely don't see how any moral boundaries could possibly be crossed then either.

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

Joe: making new embryonic stem cell lines is legal. But Congress says (under Bush and under Obama) you can't use federal research money to fund it. The new exec order says you can use fed research $ to work on any such lines once they are derived (as opposed to just the few that Bush explicitly approved).

Some people feel that public money should not be used to work on the lines - their reasoning probably goes that it implicitly encourages their creation, which involves the destruction of embryos. (the "embryo" at this point is a tiny ball of cells, a blastocyst, and "destroying" it is basically just making it fall apart into its individual cells which you then grow in a dish).

I realized the issue here is about whether or not fed money should be used for the research. I was unclear about the term "lines".

So a stem cell line is the collection of cells derived from a particular blastocyst?

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

oh - yes. Sorry, Joe, I misunderstood your question. A "cell line" is indeed a set of genetically identical cells being propagated in artificial media. Actually they are usually derived from one ancestral cell, but since the stem cells of a blastocyst should be identical to one another, I don't think it matters much if you isolate just one to start with. Any human cell culture people, feel free to weigh in. . .

Thanks! Didn't mean to turn this into stem cell 101 :D

By joe leasure (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink

In my humble opinion, Yuval Levin's premise is wrong. Based on nothing. Only meaningless words to fill space for his own reasons.

"There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science"

NOBODY exerts authority over science. Science is what it is and that's that. Short, sweet and simple.

For him to even suggest such a thing is either pompous or unimformed.