How Can Scientists Convince the World They Are Not Mad?

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The UK and
US governments have (once again) taken up the controversial issue
of embryonic stem cell research. Last Wednesday, the British Human
Fertilisation and Embryology Authority put off making a decision
about chimeric stem cells, in which an animal’s egg is used as the
vessel for a human embryo. The following day, the US House of Representatives
passed a bill expanding federal funding for stem cell research.

As this was
all coming to a head, scientific journals published editorials on
the topic. Although not all of the editorials expressed identical
opinions, there was a common theme. This is not limited to the current
stem cell–related editorials, either. The majority of editorials
in scientific journals echo the same sentiment. Am I nave to expect
anything different? Perhaps. But at least some of the world’s scientists
are very, very intelligent, so I sometimes expect more from them
when it comes to economic reasoning.

The theme that
I am concerned about goes something like this:

This new
widget technology has great potential. Sure it can be misused,
but the potential for great things out-weighs the potential for
disaster. If everything is regulated properly, there will not
be a problem. We scientists should educate the community and politicians
to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place so that this
important research can move forward.

Many scientists
I know are good people. For the most part, they have good intentions.
Therefore, I believe that the scientists who want to pursue research
on embryonic or chimeric stem cells really do want to help the world.
They may also desire fame or at least a feeling of personal accomplishment
for having a role in a breakthrough medical advance. But the selfish
reasons do not negate the unselfish ones. Austrian economic theory
recognizes this, especially with respect to charity and volunteerism.
So it is likely that there is potential value of whatever research
an editorial is promoting.

But, like the
authors of the scientific editorials, I am not addressing the core
issue. The issue is money. Let me repeat that, because the scientific
editorials almost never make the connection: The issue is money.
That is to say government subsidies and grants. Congress and the
HRFA and other regulatory agencies can ban or allow certain types
of research because they are funding the research. US
law
does not and has not prohibited stem cell research, but
rather sets limits on what research will be funded by federal agencies.
I am not sure that the American and British publics realize how
much taxpayer-funded research is going on. According to the American
Association for Advancement of Science, universities and colleges
received almost 29 billion dollars in federal funding for research
in 2004, accounting for 63.8%
of all research dollars at these institutions.

At the beginning
of this article, I posed a question, implying that the answer would
follow. So here it is: if the majority of scientific research were
conducted with private funding, 1) scientists would be free of restrictive
regulation of their research, 2) they would be held accountable
for their actions, and 3) the public would be more confident that
immoral or unethical research was not taking place. At this point,
most academic researchers will be tempted to dismiss anything else
I have to say, because the previous sentence runs counter to the
current dogma. An article
in The Scientist portrays the general sentiment among researchers
regarding funding sources:

[The trend
of increased industry funding of clinical trials], according to
some life science policy experts, threatens the independence of
basic research. Others, however, see a move towards an increase
in industry funding relative to public funding as a sign of the
health of scientific enterprise.

”If institutions
become too dependent on private funding sources, the academic
research focus could move too heavily toward development,” warns
Robert Gropp, director of public policy at the American Institute
of Biological Sciences in Washington. While this may be initially
attractive to industry, he predicts that in the long term a decreased
focus on basic science would strangle the free-thinking, creative
research historically found in academia.

But I think
it is clear from the current stem cell regulations that public funding
strangles “free-thinking, creative research.” Scientists need to
wake up and realize this fact. They also need to realize that the
opposite of public funding is not funding by a large pharmaceutical
company.

Private funding
currently comes from many sources, including smaller companies,
charitable groups, and individuals. There will necessarily be an
ulterior motive for the funders, just as scientists have ulterior
motives for doing the research they do. But these motives do not
automatically negate the freedom that can come with the funding.
For example, a smaller company may want to fund research at a nearby
university so that they can have access to the resources at that
university. They are too small to hire a staff of Nobel Laureates
and run facilities with very expensive equipment, but they may be
willing to forego day-to-day oversight of the research they are
funding in order to have access to these resources for a comparatively
small fee. Likewise, the history books are full of philanthropists
who give money away because of the do-gooder feeling and positive
public image they get.

There is one
more key part to the answer to the question I posed. There must
be accountability and oversight if research with potentially grave
consequences is pursued. If the government is not funding and regulating
the research, then how will the public know that mad scientists
won’t create a monster? How will they know that civil rights are
not being violated? First, the private funding sources themselves
will provide some sort of balance. Universities, companies, charities,
and philanthropists usually want to protect their image, and they
would undoubtedly audit the research they are funding to do so.
Also, consumer watchdog organizations and insurance companies would
play a role. My husband will only buy motorcycle helmets that meet
both DOT (federal) and Snell (non-profit) standards. Additionally,
his insurance company and some motorcycle stores give him a discount
because he took a two-day motorcycle safety course. Consumer organizations
and insurance companies currently provide these types of safeguards
in many fields, so it is reasonable to expect them to do a very
good job in a scientific research market free of government regulation.

All embryonic
stem cell research in the US, including the isolation of the first
human embryonic stem cells, was privately funded until the Bush
administration’s policy change in 2001. Apparently, there was a
market for stem cell research and considerable advances were made
within that market. The current debate clearly has nothing to do
with what scientists are allowed to study, but whether they can
get “free” money to do so.

Kathryn’s
father, Jim McElroy, edited and contributed to this article.

January
19, 2007

Kathryn
Muratore [send her mail]
has a PhD in biology from the University of California Berkeley
and is currently doing research at Johns Hopkins. She realizes that
if the above proposal were a present-day reality, she might not
have a PhD or be doing the research she is currently doing, and
she is perfectly OK with it.

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