Archive for the ‘Biotechnology’ Category

left science/right science on….?

February 23rd, 2007

Posted by: admin

Getting back to an old friend in the scientized-politicized world, stem cells/embryo research. In a story on stem cells and embryonic research in NPR’s All Things Considered last night, UC San Francisco researcher Susan Fisher said, “Because the federal government has prohibited academic institutions from working on embryos, we really know almost nothing about human embryos in the beginning stages.”

The difference between a federal government prohibition on a certain type of academic research (which very obviously did not happen) and a removal of federal funding from a certain type of research on moral grounds (which did) is not subtle or nuanced, it’s quite clear, and it stretches my credulity to believe that Dr. Fisher doesn’t know the difference.

Science and Politics of Food

January 29th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an excellent and provocative article on the science and politics of food by Michael Pollan. Here is an excerpt, but read the whole thing:


Calling Carbon Cycle Experts

December 24th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

We’d welcome an explanation of the possible (or non) significance of this new paper in Science for understandings of the global carbon cycle. A news story contained the following interesting paragraph (italics added):

Scientists say the discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending miles underground whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life.

Ceding the Ethical Ground on Stem Cells

September 8th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Washington Post has a good news story on the possibility of “ethically acceptable” stem cell research that helps clarify the confusion created by an over-hyped story in Nature, involving business interests, a misleading press release, and a erroneous reporting of the story by Nature. But the over-hyping may be the least important aspect of this situtation for proponents of stem cell research. Firt, here is an excerpt from the Post story:


Science Studies: Cheerleader, Marketer, or Critic?

May 12th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A former colleague of mine used to say that social scientists were the equivalent of “lap dogs” for the broader scientific community.


By that, he meant that social scientists were around to entertain, look good, but nothing more. My experiences suggest that there is some element of truth in his description of the relationship of science studies with the broader scientific community, especially in those situations where the funding of the science studies scholars depends upon the largesse of the broader scientific community that they are working with. It is a difficult issue because one of the lessons from science studies research is the need for a close relationship with stakeholders, which for many science studies scholars are the scientists themselves.

I was motivated to blog on this after reading a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, discussing the challenges of putting limits on science. He observes,


The Omega-3 Pig

April 4th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Autumn Fiester, from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, has a provocative essay on genetically modified pigs at AJOB. Here is an excerpt:

The new omega-3 pig is the perfect example of what is terribly wrong with American animal biotech research: scientists pursue whatever interests them, and then they try to find a problem for which their results can be hailed as the solution. Instead of having the animal biotech agenda driven by the public’s true needs and values, we have an agenda-less agenda, with individual research teams expending vast resources on frivolous projects the public doesn’t want or need. The backdrop here is that Americans are, at this point, overwhelmingly opposed to this science, and much of this research is federally funded, so the American people actually pay for the research through their tax dollars. We need a biotech strategy that serves the public’s collective interests and conforms to their values.

Dr. Fiester concludes,

All of this is not to say that animal biotechnology can never be morally justified. There may be great good that can be accomplished with a reflective, cautious approach to this science. But instead of the default position being “anything goes,” it ought to be “proceed only with extreme caution.”

This does sound to me a lot like the objections that some have to stem cell research. How should we decide, whether it is genetic modification of animals or human stem cell research, what research is to be allowed and which is not?

Stem Cells and Vulgar Democracy

March 21st, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Dan Sarewitz has posted the text of a paper that he gave at the AAAS meeting last month titled, “Proposition 71: Vulgar Democracy in Action” (PDF). Here is how it begins:

In 1947, when Congress passed legislation to create the National Science Foundation, President Truman vetoed the bill because it insulated the administration of the proposed agency from direct Presidential control. At issue here was not a simple question of turf or the exercise of power, but a fundamental principle of democratic governance: that publicly funded programs must be ultimately accountable to the public via democratically elected officials. In the decades since Truman’s veto, as the nation’s investment in research has grown from a few tens of millions to about sixty billion dollars, this principle has never seriously been challenged. Indeed, it is precisely this accountability that has allowed the publicly funded research enterprise to maintain its political legitimacy, productivity, and growth through such crises as the Tuskegee experiment and the death of Jesse Gelsinger, and which has stimulated a considerable beneficial evolution of scientific norms in such areas as protocols for human subjects’ research, the treatment of laboratory animals, and the role of gender and ethnic diversity in clinical trials. Democratic accountability, that is, is good for science.


Uranium Enrichment and Stem Cells

March 9th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article on uranium enrichment research in Iran. It begins as follows:

There are times when even a little bit of research can be a bad thing, especially if it centers on Iran and the bomb. On Tuesday, a wide range of nuclear scientists and analysts faulted as dangerous Moscow’s tentative proposal to let Tehran do small amounts of research on uranium enrichment, with some comparing it to being a little bit pregnant. “After a while, you tend to wind up having a baby,” said Peter D. Zimmerman, a professor of science and security in the war studies department of King’s College, London. “I do not believe the Iranians should have any access to enrichment technology until they prove to be a more responsible partner than they’ve been so far.” The Iranians have strenuously objected to such characterizations, saying the West wants to deprive them of atomic knowledge and expertise that they have a right to acquire for a peaceful program of nuclear power. They see it as nothing less than a devious plot by outside powers to keep their country from modernizing. In an interview with Al Arabiya television last month, for example, Ali Larijani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said, “The problem is that they look at the Islamic nations as being inferior, that we should not have modern technology, and it is enough for us to produce tomato paste and mineral water.”

The international issue of nuclear research in Iran is in my mind exactly analogous to the debate at the federal level over stem cell research in the United States in the follow ways:

1. A group in society – the researchers — wants to conduct research that has potential positive benefits to outcomes that they value.
2. Another group in society – the restricters — wants to restrict that research because of its potential negative impacts with respect to outcomes that they value.
3. Both groups seek to impose their values on the other, but both cannot succeed at the same time as their goals are in direct conflict.
4. In both cases the restricters have the upper hand from a political perspective.
5. In both cases the researchers are seeking ways around the research restrictions.
6. The researchers assert that this is about the right to conduct research.
7. The researchers accuse their opponents as being morally challenged.
8. In both cases the decision to conduct the research or not is 100% political.

These debates are about what research gets to be conducted, by whom, and how paid for. Did I miss anything? I’m interested in reactions.

More on GM Foods and WTO

February 9th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

At David Dickson has a thoughtful essay on GM foods, science, and trans-science. Dickson notes that people in poor countries can view “modern science and technology with suspicion, if not scepticism.” I’d extend this claim to cover some people in richer countries as well. Here is an excerpt:

But the distrust is also due to the fact that faith in scientific solutions may clash with the comforting certainties of traditional belief systems. This in turn means that these solutions may undermine not only the social practices that belief systems support — the most obvious example being traditional medicine — but also the social cohesion they generate. Put these factors together, and the result is that, for all its promises, modern science often generates a sense of alienation, rooted in feelings of a loss of control. In principle, we can all subscribe to the idea that, as the philosopher Francis Bacon said, “knowledge is power”. In practice, scientific knowledge is frequently seen as reinforcing the power of those who already have it — and, as a consequence, further disenfranchising those who do not.

Dickson then explains that the GM food debate is not really about scientific risk per se, but science and technology in modern society:


What About Democracy?

February 8th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The WTO ruled yesterday that there is no scientific justification for opposition in the EU to genetically modified crops. According to the Financial Times,