Photo via the New York Times
The biggest news to come out of the White House today will no doubt be this: Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise, and reversed yet another Bush decision, by lifting the ban on stem cell research. Reiterating his pledge that his administration will "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology," he issued an executive order meant to further advance stem cell research--and to cement the status of science as eclipsing political gamesmanship in his administration. A Return to Science and a Photo-Op
Aware of the symbolic nature of his move—uber aware, I'd say, judging by the gaggle of scientists, wheelchair bound patients, and lawmakers that packed into the White House's East room for a bill signing photo op—Obama paired the executive order with another act that should garner the approval of researchers and scientists. He issued a presidential memorandum "directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to 'develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making,'" according to the New York Times.
And even though he's already under fire from right to life groups (one of which issued this statement: "Many researchers will never be satisfied only with the so-called leftover embryos," implying somehow that fetus-hungry scientists will plow through their reserves and what, demand the harvesting of unborn children?) and some Republican lawmakers (one who's already begun calling him "the abortion president"), Obama deserves credit for making an important, politically divisive decision. One that importantly goes a long way in depoliticizing science.
Breaking the Not-So-Scientific Tradition
Our previous president wasn't too keen on separating science from politics, as you may recall, and as a result, we're years behind in even acknowledging and approaching issues like climate change. Bush had a well documented tendency to bend scientific findings to suit his ideology.
So even though it's my personal opinion that stem cell research is a very good thing—it promises to yield invaluable treatments for genetic diseases and physical trauma—it's Obama's opinion that the value of science cannot be trumped by ideology that resonates the most emphatically. It leads to a number of encouraging assumptions, including that we're less likely to see more doctoring or distorting of scientific findings (climate change bad for business? Then it's not happening. Stem cell research upsetting pro-life advocates? Then it's flat out immoral.). Which is a very good thing.
Science and Empathy
One last note—Obama also made a call to respect opposing viewpoints and opinions on controversial practices like stem cell research. This is imperative. While today ushers in a resounding victory for science, many disagree vehemently with the decision—a right they are entitled to. Though it has been decided that the scientific merit of stem cell research cannot be denied, ethical objections should still have their place in the public discourse.
We cannot and should not blindly ignore the myriad discomforts raised in opponents of the decision, but rather engage them in an open dialogue whenever possible. If we who support science first and foremost shut out the other voices as irrelevant—then we're not much better than You-Know-Who.