Monday, March 09, 2009

Rule by Fiat

President Obama ruled by fiat today that the United States will start vigorously funding embryonic stem cell research. Yes, he even used the word vigorous.

Most likely this research will be done at the cost of adult stem cell research … you know, the stuff that is likely to lead to cures for a myriad of diseases.

This fiat comes from a president who promised to usher in a new enlightenment with open public debate on policy.

The funny thing about this dictate is that it was not preceded even by a token effort to show that was a critical need for change.

In contrast, the stem cell debate during the "Bush Dark Ages" included vigorous debate before during and after the establishment of policy. The public debate that occurred during the Bush Dark Ages dramatically improved public understanding

The debate began with Bush, along with most of the world, clueless about both the nature and promise of stem cell research. The policy went through various cycles as leaders from the religious, academic and medical communities spouted out with opinions. The open debate that occurred during the Bush Dark Ages dramatically improved public knowledge and raised awareness of biomedical research.

I believe that the most important thing we learned was that there is a distinction between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

The fertilization of an embryo creates an omnipotent cell. This omnipotent cell apparently can transform into any cell. If implanted in the uterine lining an embryonic stem cell can produce an individual walking talking, public service consuming human.

Of course the development is not direct. The omnipotent stem cells differentiate early in the development process into things called adult stem cells. These adult stem cells end up being able to produce all the different cells in the body.

There are a large number of cancers and other diseases associated with problems in adult stem cells. It is this area of research that promises the miraculous cures and is helping solve the mysteries of diseases. This is the area of focus of the medical community.

The embryonic stem cells pretty much seem to be limited to the earliest stages of development. I mean if our fingernail had omnipotent cells in them, then we would have manicurists becoming pregnant mysteriously as any fingernail cell would become a child on coming into contact with her uterine lining.

I went to a number of debates and listened to podcasts and lectures on this fascinating subject.

During one of these debates a professor who was highly critical of Bush made an interesting observation. He was preparing lectures for sold out crowds interested in learning the different sides of the stem cell controversy. While preparing his attacks on the hated Bush it dawned on the professor that the ethical debate resulted in sold out crowds.

The debate led to a spike in the number of quality students interested in biomedical research or medicine as a career.

The process of re-affirming the ethical guidelines drew students and public interest into the process.

On hearing the news, I felt like composing a piece on the relation of ethics and science that I placed on a different site.

In the piece I argue that science, from its inception, has been an ethical discourse. The article has a pretty picture and, in my opinion, makes some good points. BTW, this long blog post is really just a pointer to the article. Blogs are for bloviating.

The idea that science exists in a difference space than ethics is really a modern contrivance.

Anyway, Obama's dictate reversing the compromises that took place in the Bush Dark Ages appears to me to be bad form. If there were compelling reasons to change the compromise; then a smart leader would have led in with a discussion as to why we needed to change the compromise. The dictate sprung on the world today appears to me to be just political posturing.


Grandma Ruby said...

So we need to have the same debate over again just a few years later in order to placate your sensitivities?

Get off your high-horse.

Also, look up the word 'fiat" before you use it. A sweeping ban that spites scientific advances and public opinion is more of a fiat than a quick reversal of bad policy.

y-intercept said...

Wiktionary defines fiat as "An authoritative command or order to do something; an effectual decree." derived from the latin "let it be done".

There was serious debate before Bush's decree, and substantial modifications made to the decree as the result of the debate.

Everyone says that Bush was a dunderhead. If this is so then there would be clear, egregious flaws in his decree. If this were the case, then the pro-embryonic research people need simply state that these are the egregious errors and and point to the research that was thwarted.

This is not what happened. Obama simply issued a new decree.

Had we repeated the debate it is likely that we would have reached the same conclusion that adult stem cell research is the promising avenue and that embryonic research is rife with ethical conflicts.

If the last debate generated a great deal of interest in biomedical research, then why should we be afraid to debate the issue again?

The only reason I can think of for the decree is that his position on the issue really is not that strong ... pure political expediency.

The only part of the debate we needed to repeat were the flaws in Bush's decree. If there were egregious flaws