Just the Science?

Crossposted from the Science in Society blog:

Last week, the Obama administration rolled back restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on newly created embryos. When he was in the Senate, Obama said the following:

“…the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.”

A recurrent theme of this blog is that science policy is more than just science. Like all policy decisions, it is informed by facts but fundamentally comes down to a question of priorities. What is the value of a human embryo, and is it worth trading off X of these to develop Y therapies? What is the cost of climate change, and how much are we willing to pay economically to mitigate the effects? The “judgment of science” can tell us the characteristics of a blastocyst and vaguely sketch out possible benefits from stem cell research. But the decision whether to have the government fund it is a political and ideological one, and to point to one side of the argument as “science trumping ideology” is disingenuous.

The Economist article goes on to point out that Obama opposes human cloning. In his remarks on embryonic stem cell research he called human cloning “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society,” and promised that “we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” Now there are good reasons for this opposition: even on animals there is a very low success rate, and even for successful clones there are often lingering medical issues. But notice how the reasoning has suddenly changed – he is morally opposed to human cloning based on these known risks, thus justifying at least defunding of the research and possibly (the wording is unclear) banning it altogether. From science trumping ideology we now have ideology directing science.

Not that this makes these decisions necesarily wrong. There are strong arguments for embryonic stem cell research, which become stronger or weaker depending on the value you place on a human blastocyst. Likewise many (but not all) believe that the suffering attendant upon human cloning efforts is too great to justify scientific advance in that field. But we need to be clear that these decisions are informed by science but ultimately based on personal beliefs and priorities, not solely on “the judgment of science.”

Politicians ought to appoint scientific advisors on a nonideological basis and listen to what they have to say, but it is ultimately their job to issue a judgment based on their value system. However rhetorically convenient it may be, it is disingenuous for them to claim to follow science’s lead when approving of research, only to voice moral disapproval when they wish to hit the ideological brakes.