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See Inside May 2010

Society and Science: When Research Findings Impinge on Politics

When you read hundreds of letters from readers every month, as I do, common patterns of argument emerge. I can’t answer every note individually, so in this column I’d like to at least respond to one type of assertion. That is the idea, whenever the letter writer doesn’t agree with an expert-informed point of view expressed in Scientific American, that science should not mention or touch on politically sensitive areas—that science is somehow apart from social concerns. I say: Wrong.

Science findings are not random opinions but the result of a rational, critical process. Science itself advances gradually through a preponderance of evidence toward a fuller understanding about how things work. And what we learn from that process is not just equivalent to statements made by any another political-interest group. It is evidence-based information that is subject to constant questioning and testing from within the scientific community. Thus, the science-informed point of view is a more authoritative and reliable source of guidance than uninformed opinions. We should not discount its value in informing public discourse.

Certainly politics, for its part, has not left science unmolested. Citing past instances of politically motivated suppression of findings, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum a year ago that directed John P. Holdren, the White House science and tech­­nol­ogy adviser, to explore ways to restore scientific in­tegrity to government decision mak­ing. I salute the gesture, although at press time I still remain im­patient for the actual delivery of that strategy.

One well-known area of research government stifled in the past is stem cells. Embryonic stem cells offer amazing potential for cures, because they can become any of the 220 types of cells in the human body. They could be used to replace diseased tissue or to develop therapies for ailments such as Parkinson’s disease or cancer. Several years ago the Bush administration limited research to then existing stem cell lines, citing ethical concerns about procuring such cells by destroying early-stage—containing about 200 cells—embryos. (A quick aside: politicians seem to have less of a problem with in vitro fertilization techniques, in use for decades, which create thousands of frozen embryos that may be later destroyed.) The current administration later lifted those restrictions, but the topic remains fraught.

In this issue’s cover story, “Your Inner Healers,” Konrad Hochedlinger, a Harvard University associate professor of stem cell and regenerative biology and a faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, describes a solution that may work for science and politics. New techniques can convert any mature body cell into an embryonic state—from which any desired tissue could theoretically be grown. It is early days for this exciting advance; we don’t know yet if the reprogrammed cells can truly duplicate the abilities of embryonic stem cells. But we do know that science, if we allow it to proceed, will strive to find out.

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