Questioning Authority asked Craig Woodard, biology professor, associate dean of faculty for science, and Science Center director, for his thoughts on President Obama’s recent announcement regarding scientific research, including stem-cell research. Here’s what he had to say.
QA: Obama issued a broad statement last week about science, stem-cell research, and the federal government. Did we lose a lot of ground in stem-cell research as a result of the Bush-era restrictions on stem-cell lines? If so, can we make it up?
CW: Yes, we did lose ground. The stem-cell lines that had already been approved were not useful for therapeutic research. They had genomic abnormalities, and there were problems with contamination. Just obtaining them was difficult and required a lot of paperwork. You need newer stem-cell lines to do useful research. Under the Bush-era restrictions, any work with newer stem cells had to be done using very limited private funding. Stem-cell research holds a great deal of promise, so we need federal funding and support for it. Hopefully, Obama’s new policy will enable us to speed up progress in this important field.
QA: In addition to lifting restrictions on stem-cell research, Obama also promised that the federal government would not impose political curbs on federally funded science initiatives. What results are we likely to see from that change in policy?
CW: With politics having less influence on science policy in the U.S., scientists will have more freedom to do unbiased research that has real intellectual merit and benefits everyone. Scientists should not be coerced into doing research that serves a particular political agenda.
QA: Are there situations in which federal restrictions on scientific research might be appropriate? Could you give an example?
CW: Yes, we do need to have some federal restrictions on scientific research. Research that causes harm to people should never be allowed. For example, human cloning should be banned. Cloning often results in animals with severe abnormalities, so it is unethical to create a human being by this method.
QA: Will Obama's science policy have an impact on science programs at liberal arts colleges such as Mount Holyoke?
CW: Obama’s policy should lead to more federal funding for a variety of basic research activities, and greater support for science education. Science programs at liberal arts colleges should certainly benefit.
QA: Has the U.S. lost its preeminent status in the science world as a result of Bush-era "marginalization" of science?
CW: The Bush-era policies have slowed us down compared to countries such as Singapore and Japan, where there has been greater scientific freedom. However, the U.S. is still acknowledged worldwide as a leader in science research and education. Hopefully, with Obama’s new policy, scientific progress in the U.S. will regain the momentum it had lost.
QA: What has been the response to Obama's announcement among your colleagues in the science world?
CW: The scientific community is overjoyed by Obama’s announcement. It has renewed hope for greater support of important research, and it has restored enthusiasm for pursuing science in the U.S.