Tuesday, March 16, 2004

More on Elizabeth Blackburn and the Bioethics Council
Early Release Article from NEJM

I am very much aware of the fact that much has been written about the Bioethics Council and about Dr. Blackburn's dismissal from the Council.   In a quick survey of a Bloglines search, I did not see any commentary on the latest development.  The news comes from a source that is not widely available, so I will report on it here to the general blogience

The latest development is the early release of an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.  For those unfamiliar with the Journal, it is the oldest medical journal in the USA.  NEJM is in fact one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world.  The Journal occasionally issues what the call "early release articles."  These are papers that are felt to have a high degree of significance and that deserve immediate publication.  For example, some of the first papers on the SARS virus  were released in this manner. 
Sweetwaters Cafe in Saline, Michigan
Articles published in NEJM are freely available, but only after they are six months old.  To read the latest stuff, you need to have a paid subscription.  Because of the importance of early release articles, though, they are freely available from the moment of publication.   It is possible to sign up for e-mail notice of these releases at http://www.nejm.org/alerts

This morning, I saw such an alert in my e-mail at work.  I had not even finished my first cup of Sweetwaters  coffee when I read Dr. Blackburn's Perspective  article, Bioethics and the Political Distortion of Biomedical Science.  Not to make light of it, but you know it must be important if I read it before finishing my coffee. 

The article to which I am referring was written after the one  that was published in PLoS Biology.  I mention that because, to get the complete picture, it is necessary to read both of them.  Additional perspective can be gained by reading the WaPo editorial  by the head of the Council, Leon Kass. 

What is new?

Dr. Blackburn provides some background on her selection to the Council, and her personal decision to join.  She also talks about the experience of being dismissed:

Unfortunately, my initial misgiving proved to be
prescient. In a telephone call from the White House
one Friday afternoon last month, I was told that my
services were no longer needed. The only explanation
I was offered was that “the White House has decided
to make some changes in the bioethics council.”
Persons who are versed in such matters have
since suggested that the prearranged timing of the
call was not a coincidence: this administration commonly
takes controversial action on Friday afternoons,
when the news is expected to fall into a
weekend void.

People have argued about the significance of the dismissal of Dr. Blackburn.  Skeptics have impugned her honesty; one attempted to invalidate her subsequent comments as the fury of a scorned academic (on The Evangelical Outpost).  This, of course, is completely unwarranted and mean-spirited.   Kevin T. Keith  wrote an incredibly detailed refutation of Evangelical's criticism -- see his comments.  Tom Van de Ven had a more restrained criticism  on his blog, undercaffeinated.

Anyone familiar with academic life knows that Dr. Blackburn was making a significant personal sacrifice in joining the Council.  Now that she is free of the political nonsense, and free to pursue her chosen profession, it is safe to say that she is much happier now than she was when she was on the Council.  She would not have joined the Council if her motives were purely self-serving.  As a recipient of the California Scientist of the Year  award, she is likely to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize.  (Eleven of the 51 CSOTY winners later were awarded Nobels.)  Taking time away from her research (to participate on the Council) could only detract from her opportunity to enhance her reputation  in the scientific community. 

Since I am not a specialist in stem-cell research,[...]
in preparation for the meetings and reports of the

council. I therefore read and assessed the published
science, attended sessions on current stem-cell
research at national and international scientific
conferences, and consulted with stem-cell biologists
throughout the country.

Obviously, this activity was not related directly to her main line of research, so she spent all that time and effort in order to contribute to the public debate on bioethics.  It did not advance her career at all for her to do this. In my view, this altruism enhances her credibility and casts doubt upon any attempt to characterize her as a "scorned academic."  If her commentary is the mere grousing of a disgruntled outcast, there should be other references to her complaining about various things.  Although there are many articles about her on the Internet, I did not find any mention of her raising objections to anything other than the activities of the Council.  Therefore, there is no basis for characterizing her as a complainer. 

Dr. Blackburn describes her main concern about the Council:

I was assured repeatedly by the chairman
that the science would be represented clearly in
our reports.

I was therefore concerned when I read the sections
concerning research on embryonic stem cells
in the drafts of the report and the final Report on
Monitoring Stem Cell Research. Work with animal
models has been indicating the potential benefits of
research involving embryonic stem cells for more
than two decades. More recently, research breakthroughs
in the generation and differentiation of
human embryonic stem cells and increased understanding
of these processes have suggested that this
avenue of research will eventually lead to beneficial
uses in health care. Work with animal models increasingly
suggests that such research may result in
therapies for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal
injuries, among other conditions. Yet the best
possible scientific information was not incorporated
and communicated clearly in the council's report,
suggesting that the presentation was biased.

Her concern is practical as well as academic:

I was recently contacted by a world
leader in research involving neural stem cells from
adults; he was considering withdrawing his agreement
to provide his expert opinion to the council,
for fear that the potential of research involving adult
stem cells would be overstated as a justification for
a continued ban on federal funding for promising
research on embryonic stem cells.

When prominent scientists must fear that descriptions
of their research will be misrepresented
and misused by their government to advance political
ends, something is deeply wrong.

Her conclusion is alarming:

The healthy skepticism of scientists
has turned to cynicism. There is a growing sense
that scientific research — which, after all, is defined
by the quest for truth — is being manipulated
for political ends. There is evidence that such manipulation
is being achieved through the stacking
of the membership of advisory bodies and through
the delay and misrepresentation of their reports.
As a naturalized citizen of the United States, I have
an immigrant's love for my country. But our country
must not fail us. Scientific advice should and must
be protected from the influence of politics. Will the
President's Council on Bioethics be up to that challenge?

A search of blogs, using Bloglines, indicates that the vast majority of bloggers who have commented on the subject (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17) are troubled by the dismissal of Dr. Blackburn and Dr. May from the Bioethics Council.  Likewise, major news outlets have reported that several scientific organizations have expressed similar concerns (1 2 3 4).  Michael Gazzaniga, one of the remaining Council members, said  that he was upset by the dismissal of Dr. Blackburn.  Of course, the fact that NEJM disseminated Blackburn's commentary as an early release article indicates that the editors of the Journal agree with her concerns. 

I was not able to find any reference to anyone actually supporting the changes in the composition of the Council.  Even Evangelical's post does not actually support the changes.  He does say, though:

 Eventually the Council will tire of Blackburn's lies and will start fighting back...

That was posted on March 6th, and we still have not heard anyone "fighting back."  Leon Kass did write his editorial in the WaPo, but that served to defend Bush's decision to change the Council membership.  It did not contain any refutation of Dr. Blackburn's arguments.

It seems likely that George W. Bush does not want this issue to get any more press than it already has.  That being the case, it is not at all likely that there will be any fighting back.