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Deny, Deny, Deny


Friday, May 20, was an important day. It was the day President George W. Bush proved himself to be demonstrably un-American.
The day that South Korea announced that its scientists had successfully used human embryos to clone new stem cells, the president said he opposed any expansion of government-funded programs that would – hold your breaths you America-firsters – catch up to South Korea.
Legislation making its way through the House and Senate – backed by Republicans including Mormon Orrin Hatch – would expand funding for stem cell research. Bush has sworn to veto it.
Why is this un-American? Because it’s a denial of our history. It’s a long-standing American tradition to take ideas – say the use of electronic impulses to send the human voice to a distant location (telephone, radio) or the creation of numeric protocols that allow easy transportation of digital data across a network of phone lines (the Internet) – and commercialize them. Look at the end of the last century and you’ll see lots of innovation and invention around the world; the combustion engine, the television and the radio weren’t strictly American inventions. But the commercialization of those inventions was done most successfully here in the U.S. And it created a positively boisterous economy. We’re still reaping the rewards.

Why? There are a bunch of reasons. The century-long (1890-1990) peace in the U.S., compared to a century riven by wars on the European continent, is one important part of the equation. But so is this country’s openness to immigrants; nuclear fusion, for instance, was the work of German exiles. This country’s belief that science, used correctly and wisely, could and should pave the way to a new, better world was a unique part of its post-World War II history. That’s one reason why the U.S. space program was so wildly popular; it inculcated that belief.
But none of that dreaming of what could be these days. No, this president has abandoned any idea of leading any kind of scientific break-through and is instead quashing one of the few areas – on this almost everyone agrees – of genuine research potential. Not to mention potential jobs, potential industries, potential creation of wealth. And if ever there were an un-American stance, it’s one that opposed the growth of this nation’s economy and the creation of more wealth for its citizens.
Now, I have a great deal of respect for people who argue that destroying the day- or hours-old embryos is, in essence, the destruction of human life. But I also believe they are wrong. Life begins gradually; it’s a subtle process that none of us should take for granted, one to which we should give careful thought. That’s why we have ethics. But listening to the flat, “it’s murder” argument is a bit like listening to folks who used to argue that astronaut deaths that occurred during the space program were God’s way of telling us not to leave the earth. That, however, doesn’t mean the critics’ objections should be brushed aside as trivial or superstitious. One of the sad realities of the space program was that NASA took its power to enter space for granted. People died. Research of human cells – the fundamentals of life – should be done carefully and with a great deal of oversight and regulation. In adhering closely to one point of view – and ignoring the science – President Bush has shirked his responsibility as the nation’s policy-maker-in-chief. The British have, instead, led the way on the creation of proper and well-researched ethical guidelines. And in this country, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science has, on its own, crafted guidelines.
What does this mean in practice? That there is no legal penalty, no financial penalty – no check, in other words – on ducking the ethics>. Why? Because the government can’t cut funding it doesn’t grant in the first place. It has little reach into places where it’s already decided not to go; which means it has only limited knowlege of what’s going on. In choosing a supposedly ethical position – that stem cell manipulation and research is morally wrong and should be banned – the U.S. government has chosen to abandon any sort of regulatory role in might play in seeing that such research is conducted with the ethical objections and concerns of critics in mind. President Bush’s blanket-veto threat gives stem cell research no place in the law and any law that might be passed – say a total ban on cloning of human embryos – will only encourage work that’s taking place in other countries to proceed at a faster pace.
So not only has Bush cut off the U.S.’s financial noses to spite its face, he’s ducked his job as the nation’s policy-maker-in-chief and he’s abandoned any sort of leadership role on ethical issues. That’s un-American, too. Whatever happened to the noble ideal – the one the president espouses when it comes to, say Middle East policy – applied to the sciences? That, too, was part of the space program. It ought to be part of this new, ground-breaking research.
Sitting in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to point to the spill-over effects of the space program. NASA/Ames labs recruited scientists to this part of the world in much the same way that the $3 billion stem cell ballot initiative passed overwhelming by the California voters last fall will do in the next few years.
The fall-out from that ballot initiative – it was a local jobs bill, make no mistake – and the expected migration of the nation’s biologists and researchers to California is going to provide a powerful demonstration of just how short-sighted this administration has become, just how myopic and rudderless they truly are. What’s going to happen in California is only a domestic snap-shot of what’s happening worldwide. Science is leaving the U.S. at a time when the country’s economy simply can’t afford it.

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