How Science becomes Politics

January 27th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) provides a great example of how politicians hand off hot-button political issues to scientists, and couch that transfer in science (hat tip, Matt Nisbet).

The Washington Post reported yesterday,

After remaining mostly silent on a bill that was killed last year by a Republican-led filibuster threat, Ehrlich (R) is pushing a plan to spend $20 million next year on stem cell research. But Ehrlich is not committing himself on the question that has stirred the most controversy: whether the money should be used primarily for work on stem cells derived from human embryos or from less controversial adult stem cells Although the move has drawn some criticism, Ehrlich argued in an interview that he is acting prudently, given the evolving nature of the science. “I wasn’t that good of a biology student. I’m not going to make that decision,” Ehrlich said. “The point here is that the decision should be a function of the science. These are fundamentally science questions, not political questions.” The governor would leave it to a state-founded technology corporation to decide whether to provide grants for work on adult stem cells or work on embryonic stems cells, which many scientists say holds greater promise but some in his party consider tantamount to abortion. Ehrlich, who has supported stem cell research since his days in Congress, said that his public silence last year masked a behind-the-scenes effort to develop an alternate approach that would both bolster the state’s biotechnology sector and depoliticize a difficult issue for Republicans. “The strong pro-life members know the administration does not share their views on this issue, but we wanted to try to lower the temperature on the politics,” he said. “I wanted to try to keep everyone’s eye on the ball, and I believe this approach accomplishes that goal.”

Now he made claim to not know a lot about biology, but he clearly knows politics. A passage later in the story illustrates the absurdity of claiming that decisions about stem cell research are scientific not political,

Some advocates of the research say Ehrlich’s plan has merit and view it as more likely to withstand opposition in the Senate. “As long as there’s no preference for adult, that’s fine,” said Robert Johnson, a lobbyist for Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, a coalition formed during last year’s debate that has primarily supported embryonic work. But the governor’s posture drew criticism yesterday from sponsors of the stem cell bills. In an interview, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) was adamant that money be spent on work on embryonic stem cells, which is controversial because it involves the destruction of human embryos. Hollinger’s bill would restrict research funded with state money to embryos discarded at fertility clinics and establish other rules for funding the science. “The only reason we’re doing this bill is that the president has refused to allow the research to be done,” Hollinger said, referring to a 2001 executive order by President Bush that set limits on the embryonic stem cell research that can be funded with federal money.

If the relevant scientific community here wants to avoid becoming the political battleground for this particular debate, then it would be wise to bounce the issue right back up to the Governor saying, “We know a lot about biology, but we know that a decision about funding stem cell research is politics not science.”

4 Responses to “How Science becomes Politics”

  1. Rabett Says:

    Wrong. Ehrlich’s base is strongly against embryonic cell research. By not opposing, what he gains on one side he more than loses on the other.

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  3. kevin Says:

    I think we should keep in mind that this is only an entirely ethical (and thus political) question if science can definitively answer the question, “Are adult cells just as [effective/fruitful/good/etc.] as embryonic cells?” But there are remaining scientific questions, thus I think the decision to move is both scientific and political in a science-for-policy-for-science sense. Not that I’m saying Ehrlich realizes this and is acting accordingly.

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  5. Ben Says:

    When you refer to “Ehrlich’s base” are you talking about republicans in general or republicans in Maryland. It may be a little too much of a stretch to suggest that either group is strongly against embryonic stem cell research. Many republicans including very socially conservative Orin Hatch from Utah and Mitt Romney from Massacheusetts support such research. The last poll I saw suggested that slightly less than half of registered republicans support embryonic stem cell research provided that the embryos used are surplus from fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded.
    I agree with Kevin. Certainly, Gov. Ehrlich is passing the buck, but at least he’s passing it to someone who should have a better idea of what to do with it.

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  7. Rabett Says:

    I am talking about a large number of Ehrlich’s supporters in Maryland. Essentially his coalition is (was?) a stretch between the exurbs and the religious conservatives including a large number of Catholics for whom abortion and all such related issues was important. The Catholic church still is important in Maryland, and they are dead set against embryonic stem cell research,1,1780963.story