Win public support for scientific gains

November 30, 2001|By Julia A. Moore

WASHINGTON -- It's roaring, ugly and messy. In the case of some animal rights and environmental protests, it's sometimes violent.

And with the announcement that a small company in Massachusetts created human embryos through cloning, it's a debate that has kicked into high gear.

Its battlegrounds include stem cell research, genetically modified crops, nanotechnology and xenotransplantion.

And it's focus is how the country is going to support, limit, exploit and regulate the benefits from the sensational new scientific discoveries and technologies that seem to be unveiled every hour.

It's a conflict that has raged for at least 300 years.

Its controversies have included everything from the safety and efficacy of the first smallpox vaccine to whether God intended humans to fly.

The United States doesn't fight this battle alone.

The rest of the world struggles with us, though each country debates different issues at different times and the outcomes may vary widely.

For example, the British began arguing over stem cell research 20 years ago.

They started after a British woman gave birth to the world's first test tube baby in 1978.

As a result, British scientific researchers have been successfully studying human embryos for a decade under prudent guidelines set out by their Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.

But this peaceful pursuit of scientific progress didn't happen overnight.

For years, passions flew.

Ethicists opined, and church leaders cried out. Politicians pontificated, journalists roared, interest groups lobbied, industry sounded alarm bells and scientists tried to make their case.

Out of the melee came a common-sensical approach of government oversight that meets the needs of scientists, safeguards public and ethical interests and satisfies a broad spectrum of popular and political opinion.

Stem cell research and battles over so-called Frankenstein food have led to the development in Britain of some hard-learned rules of engagement when debating science and technology, which American policy-makers would be wise to adopt.

First, engage the public early.

Remember, we live in a democracy and eventually how the society handles new technologies comes down to political decision-making.

The reality in today's world is that few governmental leaders are going to take an action that the broader public won't embrace and support.

Second, nongovernmental organizations -- be they environmental groups, patient advocates, consumer representatives, industry lobbyists or religions -- are here to stay.

They are going to play a role in decision-making, and governments need to listen to their concerns.

If, as so often happens with the science community, you don't agree with government or group positions or if you find fault with their facts, you've got to roll up your sleeves and join the debate.

Scientists and other interested parties can't sit on the sidelines.

In July, the House voted to ban all human cloning -- whether it was aimed at replicating individual human beings or at harvesting the embryos' stem cells to treat disease, like the work announced Sunday by Advanced Cell Technology.

Because of Sept. 11, the Senate hasn't acted. But an issue that's this important -- with its potential for treating diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes -- needs thorough and informed debate and not just emotional and knee-jerk political reactions from Congress.

Third, don't ever tell the public that anyone who doesn't agree with a particular government policy, or who doesn't unconditionally welcome every new technological innovation or scientific discovery, is a Luddite or simply dumb.

Only one in five American adults may be able to define DNA, but lack of scientific knowledge doesn't mean that they can't have a legitimate point of view about how society manages technological progress or change.

Fourth, policy-makers need to recognize that there is no more important commodity in the 21st century than public trust.

They need to take concrete steps to build genuine public confidence in progress.

Such steps include practicing greater decision-making openness, maintaining strong regulatory and scientific oversight systems, showing concern for ethical issues and facing public concerns over the growing commercialization of science.

Finally, like the British experience with stem cells, these battles over scientific progress aren't easy or pretty. But most of the time, they do lead to better policies and to a better-informed citizenry.

Julia A. Moore, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution, was a director for the National Science Foundation and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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