Biased for Science

President Obama was characteristically adroit with language when he declared on March 9th that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” The decision was to undo some of the restrictions on federal funding to stem cell research imposed by Obama’s predecessor in 2001. To that, half a dozen editorials responded with praise — as did, of course, most in the science community.

That was not how I received the news. The celebratory mood eluded me. Which is pretty strange coming from someone who makes a living by writing about science and its products. I thought I would always be cheering anything that raises awareness, discussion, or even questions about science, for that is how public demand for science (and thus science writers) increases.

In other words, despite my intuitive bias for science (common among the science writing class) I thought science in this particular debate was only part of the story.

In Obama’s stem cell research announcement the core of the matter was not science, but rather science policy. After all, both those for and against human embryonic stem cell research recognize the potential of such research. The disagreements are not over science, rather over moral, value, and even practical questions.

For instance, there is disagreement over the moral status of the embryo. Then there is the question of whether curing intractable illnesses could justify utilizing embryos. Also, in terms of practicality, how about the “less morally problematic alternatives,” such as blood cord and adult stem cell lines?

Thus a statement like Obama’s “we [will] make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology” is misleading — as many conservative commentators have pointed out.

The risk is that we science writers — given our instinctive bias for science — may step into the trap. The scientific debate over stem cell research (were there one) would take place on the pages of Scienceand Nature. The debate about funding research and the like, by contrast, is a reflection of a society’s moral norms, mode of government, and practical considerations. We therefore will be better served if we don’t hasten to frame this as a debate of a “war” between good (science-lovers) and evil (science-haters) — never mind Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science.

True, it’s always the right thing to “restore” anything to its “rightful place.” But in certain complicated issues such as stem cell research, the rightful place of an enterprise is not something divinely or historically determined, but rather a translation of a society’s collective decision at a point in time. To frame the stem cell research issue otherwise would probably be unwise (of journalists) or disingenuous (of politicians).