According to President Obama, I was solidly within the majority American opinion last Monday when I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing his decision to lift the ban on federal funding for stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos. In his trademark careful and conscientious rhetoric, Obama acknowledged the deep moral difficulties this issue poses, while at the same time reaffirming his steadfast commitment to "sound science." Here's what our President said:
At the same time as his executive order on stem cells, Obama also issued a memo on "Scientific Integrity," in which he called for the removal of "politics" and "ideology" from science. I think it's safe to assume that what he meant by "politics" and "ideology" there is the sorts of political ideologies that might view some scientific advances (like stem-cell research) as fundamentally amoral or immoral. And that's where things get tricky...
As I've stated numerous times before on this blog, it's a mistake to think that politics and ideology can be completely divorced from science. Science harbors all kinds of hidden normative values that dictate what counts as "scientific integrity," just like every other domain of human inquiry does. Not only do I think that there isn't such a thing as apolitical or non-idelogical scientific inquiry, but I'm not even sure such a thing would be desirable. So, the real challenge is to be clear what sorts of moral and political ideologies are informing the direction that science takes or doesn't take. Obama seemed to suggest that we've basically hog-tied science for the last eight years with utterly unscientific moral concerns (a claim that I basically agree with), and that the quicker we can dispatch with those concerns, the better for science (a claim with which I couldn't disagree more). That seems to me to be overstating the case, to say the least.
I agree with William Saletan's argument in his recent Slate article ("Winning Smugly"), in which he (rightly) points out: "you don't have to equate an embryo with a full-grown person to appreciate the danger of exploiting them." Simply removing these sorts of ethical concerns from the debates about what science ought and ought not do amounts to writing a blank check to scientists. Saletan's article takes even greater exception with Obama, as Saletan compares the President's rhetoric to the Bush/Rove rhetoric about torture, in which we were effectively instructed to lay aside our moral concerns about mistreating enemy combatants because, quite simply, the stakes were too high to permit that kind of bleeding-heart posturing. Saletan writes:
The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it.
It's a harsh comparison that Saletan makes, but also an accurate one, unfortunately.