Vantage Point: Criminalizing science will undermine economy – and democracy

Paul Berg

A near majority of senators is ready to send scientists to jail for pursuing research that challenges faith-based doctrine and certain individuals’ personal values.

Although a broad range of biologists and doctors agree that the study of embryonic stem cells should go forward—that it holds promise for advancing our fundamental understanding of human life as well as potentially leading to new therapies for diseases—many members of Congress are working to forbid it, indeed, criminalize it. Reflecting the growing political clout of social conservatives, these lawmakers hold that the current federal policy of restricting funding for such work does not go far enough.

This threat is not only to stem cell biologists. It affects the entire scientific community. For when science is attacked on purely ideological grounds, its very integrity is at risk.

Such a challenge to basic scientific research would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Following World War II, the federal government enthusiastically embraced untargeted research, what some often refer to as curiosity-driven research. The achievements of our basic research enterprise made us the world leader in the physical and life sciences, fueling the economic prosperity that the country enjoyed for the last half of the 20th century. The public did not question the value of this research. The succession of breakthroughs in medicine, nuclear physics and information technologies, to mention a few, played well in the headlines and the domination by American scientists of each year’s Nobel prizes engendered a sense of pride.

The respect awarded scientists could still be seen in the middle and late 1970s when for the first time federal officials considered prohibiting a line of basic research—the study of recombinant DNA technology. Although a number of lawmakers feared that unfettered pursuit of “genetic engineering” might result in unforeseen and damaging consequences for human health and the Earth’s ecosystems, proposals to restrict such work were stymied by scientists’ opposition. Instead, largely at the urging and guidance of the scientific community, research was permitted to proceed according to federal guidelines that mandated oversight by an institutional review process and approval by the National Institutes of Health.

Today, there is hardly a field in the life sciences that has not been transformed by our enhanced understanding of DNA. To be sure, these advances have been accompanied by ethical conundrums. Increasingly professional bioethicists and the media have questioned whether knowledge of human genetics could intrude into matters of personal privacy and provide a basis for discrimination. Yet such concerns were directed toward the potential for misapplication—and even malevolent use—of the new knowledge, not toward advocating limitations on the science itself.

Unlike the debate over the recombinant DNA issue, which turned on an empirical analysis of whether it posed a threat to human health, the concerns about embryonic stem cell research have more to do with values and ideology. The essence of the confrontation is that the only available source of human embryonic stem cells is the very early stage embryo—the blastocyst, a cell no larger than a period mark in this newspaper. Consequently, this research challenges some people’s deeply held religious views about the moral status of the early embryo.

What is so troubling is that the quality of the science being planned may no longer be the principal determinant in whether that line of research should be permitted. Rather, theological and ideological pronouncements are increasingly taking over. Social conservatives and their political representatives are poised to define the boundaries and even the permissibility of scientific research. Social conservatives are actively demonizing scientists conducting research on AIDS, reproductive technologies and fetal and embryo development. We hear calls to use the power of the public purse to limit certain lines of inquiry, as now exists for human embryo research.

Some of this is undoubtedly a backlash to the rapid pace of scientific advances, which have left many citizens confused and even fearful about the ramifications of the latest discoveries. Social conservatives have capitalized upon these sentiments, but the public’s support for science should not be underestimated. At the urging of numerous disease advocacy groups and scientists, myself included, California voters approved Proposition 71, which provides $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research. That victory suggests that citizens still are ready to trust scientists to decide how research should be conducted.

It remains to be seen, however, whether California’s decision is representative of the nation at large or an anomaly. In the coming months, scientists must become even more engaged in debates that will determine whether they can pursue unfettered research. After decades of being heroes, heralded as the driving force behind the country’s progress, the role of scientists in our society is up for grabs.

Given the threat to conduct certain lines of research, it seems to me relevant to ask if there is a constitutional right that extends to a freedom of inquiry. Does the First Amendment right to free speech extend to a right to freedom of inquiry? To what extent and by what logic can that right be abridged?

The answer is critical not only for science but for our democracy as well.

Paul Berg, PhD, is the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor of Cancer Research, Emeritus. In 1980 he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with recombinant DNA. Berg was one of 20 Nobel laureates who earlier this year signed an open letter accusing the Bush administration of using bad science to support policy decisions. He has been an outspoken advocate, nationally and locally, on the benefits of continued stem cell research.