Two Scientists Say President’s Council on Bioethics Skews Research for Political Reasons
A member and a former member of the President's Council on Bioethics charge that Chair Dr. Leon Kass has "skewed scientific facts in service of a political and ideological cause," according to a critique published online Friday in the journal PLoS Biology, the Boston Globe reports. The council was formed in 2001 to guide U.S. policy on research issues such as cloning, in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cells by providing impartial advice to the Bush administration. However, the two scientists -- biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco who was fired from the council Feb. 27, and University of Chicago biologist Janet Rowley, who is still on the council -- said the panel's reports "seemed to be driven by a preexisting agenda and did not accurately portray the scientific underpinnings of the ethical issues the council was grappling with," according to the Globe. The critique, "Reason as Our Guide," cited the council's last report published in January, "Monitoring Stem Cell Research," which the two scientists said did not clarify that significant research has recently cast doubt on the potential for using adult stem cells. When President Bush in 2001 said the federal government would not fund research on embryonic cells created after the announcement, he called adult stem cells a "promising alternative," according to the Globe. The scientists also criticized the panel's October report, "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness," which they said "unfairly characterizes research into prolonging healthy life as being dominated by scientists who are driven by the goal of immortality," the Globe reports. Blackburn said, "There is always this strong implication (in the reports) that medical research is not what God intended, that there is something unnatural about it." A spokesperson for Kass said the two scientists' viewpoints have been sufficiently represented in the panel's reports. Blackburn and Rowley were two of three full-time scientists on the council. The third, Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College, said, "I 100% support what they are trying to do," but he declined to elaborate. The critique is available online.
Blackburn's dismissal from the panel has drawn criticism from the scientific community and some politicians. The Globe reports that Blackburn, "often mentioned" as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize for her cell biology research, was told the council has "new priorities" and was fired. According to the Globe, Blackburn's removal came shortly after she showed Kass the text of the critique and told him she had submitted it for publication. Another panel member, William May, a medical ethicist from Southern Methodist University, was also asked to leave the council last month. Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said through a spokesperson Friday that the administration has "no respect for science," adding, "We have diseases that can be cured, and we have a president who has kicked two people off the commission because they happen to think we ought to be doing stem cell research and other kinds of research, and he doesn't want that outcome" (Cook, Boston Globe, 3/6). In February, a group of 60 scientists released a statement criticizing the Bush administration for suppressing or distorting scientific analyses from federal agencies when the data disagree with administration policies (American Health Line, 2/19).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.