How Can Scientists Convince the World They Are Not Mad?


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