Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nobel laureate was fired by Bush

The name Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for medicine, may ring a bell. Blackburn served from 2001-2004 on the President's Council on Bioethics. In 2004, President Bush fired her from that panel after Blackburn's views in support of stem cell research were suppressed and she raised objections to the panel's bias. Blackburn published an article on the subject in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled "Bioethics and the Political Distortion of Biomedical Science". (Read here.) That article discussed
"a growing sense that scientific research — which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth — is being manipulated for political ends."
That article advocating that science policy be based on independent, objective, non-partisan criteria was written by Blackburn in response to the Bush administration's suppression of her finding that stem cell research is ethically sound. The media, caught up in the sturm und drang of day-to-day political news coverage, tended to portray Blackburn merely as a partisan for stem cell research. That made her firing appear to be an equal and opposite political act, not a manifestation of exactly the distortion of science for political ends which Blackburn's article decried.

In spite of statutory requirements for appointing a panel with a balanced constituency representing a diversity of opinion, Bush replaced Blackburn and her colleague Dr. William May
with Dr. Ben Carson, Diana Schaub and Peter Lawler, all of whom had passed litmus tests regarding stem cell research and other issues. The Bush-nominated panel, already stacked with non-scientists who supported his views, was thus denied the input of independent scientific voices on this question. The panel's support for the administration's political objectives became unanimous. The already stacked panel was transformed to being a fig leaf to cover the naked politics of the Bush administration's pandering to the Christian Right.

True to form, after her firing and the subsequent appointment of Bush supporters to replace her, the Bush administration denied any politicizing of the panel. The chairman of the panel, Leon Kass, even wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post whose title stated in absolute terms that "We Don't Play Politics with Science". (Read here.) In that column, Kass failed to explain the reason for Blackburn's dismissal, and claimed to be unaware of the new appointees views on stem cell research -- this in spite of the fact that all three had published pieces opposing such research. Kass' denial of the administration's knowledge of the new appointee's unanimous opposition to stem cell research strained the credulity of many observers.

Further Reading

Read the Union of Concerned Scientists statement on Blackburn's firing here and the American Society of Cell Biologists' letter of protest here. OMB Watch's letter of protest is here. A skeptical but balanced assessment of the affair is readable here. A 2004 Fox News story on the controversy as an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign is online here. USA Today's coverage of the Nobel Prize is here. A biography of Dr. Blackburn can be previewed here.

A Google video of an interview with Leon Kass, panel chair at the time these events transpired, is viewable here. It deals with his book The Beginning of Wisdom; Where We Started, which deals with his view of the Book of Genesis as an ethical guide. Kass claims, starting at about 25:00 of the video, that no medical research was prevented or impeded by the Bush administration's ban on funding for the use of new stem cell lines. On that subject, Kass didn't let the scientific facts interfere with his ethical conclusion.


Blackburn gave her impressions of the media coverage of her firing from the panel in an interview with Catherine Brady (read here). That coverage gives some insight into how the needs of reporters for sensational quotes played into the politicizing of the dispute.

"Whenever I was asked whether I felt my dismissal was politically motivated, I'd begin by saying, 'let's look at the evidence'. But my efforts to appear reasonable often wouldn't be in the article. The reporters bided their time and asked leading questions until I said something pungent. A reporter might ask me if I felt Leon Kass had an appetite for diversity or nausea, and given those choices, I'd say 'nausea'. And that would be what I would see in the paper, as if the whole thing had been my idea'."

Precisely that impulse to portray both sides in political disputes as equivalent plays into the hands of those who cynically manipulate important bioethical questions for political gain.

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