WASHINGTON — Most scientists within my circle dismiss the machinations of Washington as "mere politics," activities that exist wholly apart from science. As a group, American scientists enjoy great freedom from politics. They can set their own research agendas, be the sole judge of scientific work, and even determine who can be a member of the scientific community.
This freedom is not the natural state of society, but a hard-won right. During the 19th century, a handful of scientists argued that they needed to be free from outside domination in order to do good science. Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian and a founder of the National Academy of Sciences, best summarized the position of these scientists when he wrote, "We must put down quackery or quackery will put down science."
But as Mr. Henry himself discovered, the American citizenry retained some right to judge the scientific community and determine who might be "quacks." Through their representatives, they regularly rejected or modified scientific projects. In the early 1950s, the Eisenhower administration terminated a series of mathematical projects that seemed too international. In the 1980s, the public criticized nuclear fallout experiments that seemed too irresponsible. More recently, Congress rejected the superconducting supercollider, on the grounds that it seemed too expensive. President Bush's Aug. 9 statement that "even the most noble ends do not justify any means" is more evidence that American science is not independent of the political framework in which it resides.
In order to conduct stem-cell research freely, the biologists will need to address the fact that the results of their research will unsettle traditional notions about the nature of human life. Their current approach, which promises relief for certain diseases, may not be as convincing as they might hope. When the projected cures do arrive, they are likely to be expensive. And getting there can be dangerous, as was seen in the death of a subject in a gene-therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania two years ago.
In his studies of scientific research, the historian George Daniels has noted that "[scientists are] often led to making outrageous claims for the past importance of science and to making promises that neither they nor their colleagues could reasonably expect to keep."
Further undermining the position of the scientists are the private biotech firms, which stand to profit greatly from the results of successful stem-cell research. While we live in a society that celebrates free enterprise, we have generally assumed that scientists are motivated by a love of knowledge, not by a love of money.
Mr. Bush drew attention to the "vast ethical minefields" of stem-cell research, but there are political "minefields" as well. In navigating through these political minefields, biologists will hazard the professional autonomy they have enjoyed for the past century and a half. In the current political climate, the most deadly mines combine respect for free enterprise with the traditional values that undergird the pro-life wing of the Republican Party.
To preserve their professional autonomy, scientists may have to restrain their more aggressive colleagues who would attempt to circumvent any restrictions on their laboratory work. Such restraints may not sit well with all scientists. They may think them a poor way to do research or argue that any restriction will fundamentally damage science. Such is the cost of doing science in a democracy.
David Alan Grier is a member of the Center for the History of Recent Science at George Washington University.