An essay in today’s issue of Nature struck a contentious cord at the intersection of modern science and politics: that of the ethical regulation of science. The context of ethics and science was succinctly summed up:
When in 1978 the first baby was born by in vitro fertilization (IVF) it was inevitable that there would be calls for the procedure to be prohibited. That science develops too fast for morality had become the clich?© of the twentieth century.
Focusing on IVF in Britain, this essay by Mary Warnock is narrow in scope. The same principles can be applied to the use of recombinant genetics and embryonic stem cell research, to name a couple more. The instant that these breakthroughs hit the world stage, they have sparked uproars from “moral authorities,” but in the end, it is largely the scientists that regulate themselves. (the National Academies of Science have been the ones to issue the ethical guidelines on the conduct of all of the above forms of biomedical research, not any self-righteous elected authority)
Where does this public distrust of science come from? Have there simply been too many works of dramatic fiction that depict the Frankensteinian mad scientist?
In another editorial in today’s issue of Nature, we are reminded that research on human embryonic stem cells must go on, in light of the recent breakthrough researchers at two laboratories who reprogrammed mature skin cells, giving them the characteristics of human embryonic stem cells so that they could be coaxed to differentiate into other cell types:
Around the world, opponents of human embryonic stem-cell research such as [German research minister Annette] Schavan have leapt on these results to justify their support of tight controls on the work. But this is exactly the wrong time to constrain research on human embryonic stem cells, which for one thing will be required to help scientists work out how best to coax adult cells into becoming new tissues. Both labs say that they could not have made their breakthrough without the work that has been done on embryonic stem cells.
From the researchers’ viewpoint, the debate surrounding human embryonic stem-cell research has some parallels with that on animal research. Many would be delighted to abandon the bureaucracy, cost and general inconvenience of doing contentious work. Where genuine alternatives are available, researchers will grasp them. Just as soon as there is no scientific need to work on embryonic stem cells, researchers will design their experiments to use much easier material. But that moment has not yet arrived.
The point? Discussed in a third item from today’s Nature: a book review of Fundamentals of the Stem Cell Debate: The Scientific, Religious, Ethical and Political Issues, edited by Kristen Renwick Monroe, Ronald B. Miller and Jerome Tobis.
[Chapter 5 author Lawrence Goldstein] emphasizes that we don’t settle policy disagreements by allowing governments to do some things and not others – no governing would get done. It’s the same for science: if we fund just the research that some find acceptable, no research will get done.
But all of this is probably a moot point. As the reviewer notes in commenting on The Great Debate, “Today’s take on the stem-cell field could recede rapidly in tomorrow’s rear-view mirror.” The science is taking care of itself, just as it did with the recombinant DNA and IVF controversies before them.
- Mary Warnock. The ethical regulation of science. Nature 450, 615 (29 November 2007). doi:10.1038/450615a
- An inconvenient truth. Nature 450, 585-586 (29 November 2007). doi:10.1038/450585b
- Christopher Thomas Scott. The great debate. Nature 450, 611 (29 November 2007). doi:10.1038/450611a