A Democratic president banned the use of federal money for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, a Republican president restricted federal hESC funding to existing lines and a Democratic president continues to limit federal money for hESC research. Who is regarded as anti-science on this issue? Republicans.
I know, I know, Democrats are anti-science on plenty of other things - animal research, agriculture, vaccines and a whole list of others - but this is just about hESC research and there it is clearly just a Republican issue. The mainstream media and science bloggers say so.
Yet, it's not as clear cut as they want you to believe. Instead, Republicans may have been victims of a smear campaign rather than being called out for objective science fact. I did a survey of 67,692 news releases about studies over the last 4 years and found 178 releases on adult stem cell research while embryonic stem cells were the subject of 460 releases - 2.6 times as many releases about hESCs as there were adult stem cells.
Yet the titles tell a different story. Only 20 percent of titles mentioned when the stem cells were adult - adult being a cell that can aid in repair of the tissue it came from (brain,heart, etc.) whereas embryonic stem cells are still being researched but can differentiate into potentially any kind of cell - despite the fact that adult stem cells have been researched and improving lives for over 50 years. No Republican campaign platform has objected to bone marrow transplants, after all, but if Republicans were anti-science or anti-stem-cells, they certainly would have. In contrast to adult stem cell studies, a majority of titles about hESC potential mentioned it specifically. Intentionally or not, adult stem cell research was being lumped in with hESC research, making it seem like hESC research was already helping to cure people despite the restriction.
And then there is that word 'restriction'. You don't see it much in regards to former President Bush, instead you see the word 'ban', which is a subtle way of making Republicans seem anti-science. A Google search for 'Republicans stem cell research ban' has 2.5 million hits while a search replacing 'ban' with 'restriction' only has 983,000 hits. How do the media and science bloggers get an obvious fact, a restriction on one avenue of funding versus an outright federal ban, so wrong? And why don't they hold both sides more accountable?
Today, 50 percent of Americans approve the use of therapeutic cloning - nuclear transfer of a patient's own genes - though the Obama administration bans (not simply limits) it, yet how many in science academia call President Obama anti-science?
The public sees through the partisan spin. A 2007 USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that 60 percent of Americans were in favor of easing restrictions and a recent analysis in Nature Biotechnology called "U.S. attitudes toward human embryonic stem cell research" shows those numbers are growing higher among both Republicans and Democrats, yet Republicans still lag. Republicans who disagree have no objections about serious issues, like heart attacks and cancer, but don't think federal research money should be spent on cosmetic applied science like face lifts, hardly the same as being anti-science. Republicans don't think much of shrimp on treadmills either but only 15 percent of Americans object to stem cell research overall. That's darn good.
Conflating adult stem cell research with human embryonic stem cell research has simply added to the public confusion about what stem cell research is and the benefits it has now and will have in the future. Instead of this spin doctoring making more people endorse hESCs it has caused fewer to accept all stem cell research; 20 years ago there were virtually no objections to stem cell research.
If researchers want to remain trusted guides for the public on complex science issues that will need a thoughtful science policy, scientists in academia need to make sure they are not 'framing' issues the way politicians do and to hold Democrats accountable for anti-science positions the same way they do Republicans.
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