DeFlip Side #90: The Return of Science

DS90.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, this is DeFlip Side and it’s about friggin’ time:

“Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.”

And just like that, with the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama is steering America back to where it was headed almost a decade ago, before the dark ages of scientific ignorance mandated by the Bush administration, leading us into a new day.

But before that day long progresses, scientists and the science minded may soon be pining for the good old Bush years. Because let’s face it. W was the perfect foil. If things weren’t going well, you only had to scowl and point to his draconian policies.

But the straw man is gone. It’s put up or shut up time. People are counting on science to usher in big changes. It’s one thing to point out problems; to solve them is something else again. The heady euphoria over the departure of Bush is wearing off and the tone of everything I read coming out of the scientific community lately has become markedly more pragmatic. It’s like a bunch of deer caught in the media spotlight.

This “be careful what you wish for” scenario reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Ghostbusters:

 

The stem cell debate is a perfect case in point between lofty lab aspirations and genuine results, because there’s a reality that my fellow ardent supporters of stem cell research are reluctant to acknowledge: stem cells are NOT the miracle medical cure they’re often made out to be. Do they hold undreamed of potential? Certainly. But will anyone listening to me right now benefit from that potential? Probably not. A boatload of work needs to be done to determine how different cells interact in the body before we can effectively deploy stem cells to influence those interactions.

But thanks to the high-profile advocacy by celebrities like Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali, most people think—wrongly—that embryonic stem cell research will lead to immediate therapies and even cures for paralysis and Parkinson’s Disease. And the blame for fostering these exaggerated notions lies squarely on the shoulders of scientists and scientific groupies like me.

Regular DeFlip Side listeners have heard me championing stem cell research for years, my staunch advocacy born from personal experiences with In Vitro Fertilization and a mania for immortality. But when you come right down to it, I was equally motivated by anger: anger at those in power for such a cavalier dismissal of science, and the willingness of their supporters to not only go along with it, but vigorously defend the distortions and lies.

When your blood is boiling, it’s easy to get a little overzealous in trying to swing the pendulum the other way; and it’s almost impossible to not be inspired by the unflagging determination of Christopher Reeve or the earnestness of Michael J. Fox, especially when paths to potential cures are being ignored outright over ideological nonsense. But that doesn’t make it any less wrong to give people ridiculously high expectations.

What does make it a little more palatable, however, is the simple truth that the speculation on the long term promise of stem cell research is grounded in scientific fact. It’s not dogma or wishful thinking to arbitrarily perpetuate a political or ideological agenda.

That’s why we should pin our hopes for change not on any specific branch of scientific research, but on President Obama’s reaffirmation of the role of science as a whole:

“Let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those who are here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

In other words, instead of policy distorting science, science will shape policy. And to ensure this, the president announced in his speech that the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. I envision shell-shocked scientists all over America who have been beleaguered by Bush-era policies shaking their heads, trying to re-acclimate themselves to the prospect of a government that will assist them in their pursuits of free and open scientific inquiry.

A recent New York Times essay by science writer Dennis Overbye takes it a step further by positing that the elements that make for good science are the same elements that make for good democracy: a willingness to question and debate, and to shun conventional wisdom in the face of new ideas. If we aren’t practicing one, Overbye says, we aren’t practicing the other.

That statement resonated with me not for the obvious pro-science, patriotic reasons, but because it’s a uniquely American, 21st Century post-Bush era view of the role of science, and one that points out just how much damage that administration has done to our national mindset.

Science has traditionally been just one tool among many in service to perpetuate the American way of life. But it was an equally effective tool for the USSR, which had no problems in continually trumping us in rocket and space technology in the 1950s. And who knows what China will be capable of once it starts realizing its potential? But the idea of science in America today has become increasingly synonymous with the ideal of freedom of thought; a freedom that we apparently no longer take for granted as readily as we once did. In my book, there is no more profoundly negative legacy of the Bush presidency.

So scientists are right to be extra cautious in the face of America’s renewed expectation in science, because the stakes are much higher than they seem, probably higher than they’ve ever been. We used to count on scientific progress to save us from external foes. We’re now counting on it to save us from ourselves.

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