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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008 | In an op-ed written for The San Diego Union-Tribune a few months ago (March 5, 2008, “Academic Freedom and Evolution”), former UCSD undergraduate and University of San Diego Law School alumni, Casey Luskin, discussed what he characterized as the “intolerant” attitude among many UCSD academics toward including “intelligent design” theories in evolutionary biology classes.

He described an insular community which, he suggested, can get away with exclusionary tactics because it is not made accountable by any outside body.

Only weeks ago, when the nearly completely unknown Alaska Governor Sarah Palin burst into the national limelight, she ignited a series of fiery debates, many of which concern her stance on particular issues which some have characterized as welcomed contributions to the republican ticket. Two of those issues include Ms. Palin’s belief in creationism and her support for abstinence-only education in public schools.

The inclusion of Palin, and the specific speculations regarding her creationist sympathies and approach to sex education, lend new immediacy to the ongoing arguments underpinning, on the one hand, Luskin’s lament that the scientific community is unregulated and exclusionary, and on the other, public concern over some of the Bush administration’s policies regarding government involvement in scientific research and education.

Palin’s much talked about stances on evolution and sex education lead directly to the highly complicated and contentious questions of when, how often, and in what ways it is appropriate for government (either local or national) to be involved in the direction and progress of science in this country.

It is clear that an all-or-nothing approach to government involvement is tragically flawed. Most would agree that we benefit from government support for public safety research and regulation, just as we still collectively gasp at the inhumanity of government involvement in the 1932 Tuskegee study, which continued for more than 40 years. The task is to think carefully about when, how, and to what extent we wish to see government participation in science, so that we can maximize its value and avoid abuses.

There are several potential benefits to government involvement in scientific research. There is a long tradition in the United States of government-funded public health initiatives that have resulted in wide-ranging advances, such as improved workplace conditions and automotive engineering and safety, as well as increased public awareness regarding a variety of diseases (cancer, AIDS, heart disease, to name a few).

The government funded Center for Disease Control (CDC), for example, has been among the major forces behind public health research and education in the 20th century. This particular instance of government involvement in science is valuable on at least two fronts.

First, public health, while important to the overall productivity of the nation, often falls outside the focus of individual corporations whose narrower, profit-driven conception of value often serves as a disincentive to public health funding. Also, when it comes to large scale, national (and increasingly international) projects, the government’s pockets are quite simply deeper than private corporations.

These considerations are central to the argument in favor of government-sponsored research into global issues such as the environment and military protection (in the instance of bioterrorism, for example).

There are, of course, also many potential pitfalls to the government/science relationship that we must keep in focus. As the cases of Luskin and Palin demonstrate, the “progress” of science is ideologically complex. As science intersects with many of our deeply held moral principles, government involvement in science can begin to look much like state promotion of particular religious values and ideology. Here we need only reflect on the controversy over state-sponsored abstinence-only sex education (both at home and abroad), and the consequences in several states of Bush’s 2005 endorsement of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in our public school science classes.

The implications of the questions we ask of science and the approaches and people we choose to answer those questions are of tremendous importance. It seems clear that we cannot simply apply a blanket set of answers to these difficult questions of government involvement in the direction and content of science. Our decisions about the environment, for example, are likely to be quite different, and motivated by a different set of concerns and priorities, from our decisions regarding government sponsored bio-terrorism research. The important thing is that we, as citizens, give careful thought to each instance on its own terms. We cannot simply count on others, like the government or scientists, to do it for us. We participate fully in the outcomes; we must also participate just as fully in the decision making.

These and related issues will be discussed in a free, public forum at San Diego’s Reuben H. Fleet Science Center on Wednesday, October 1st, from 5:30-7 pm, entitled “Politics in Science: Who decides what gets done and what it means?” For more information on this “Exploring Ethics” event co-sponsored with the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, please check online at http://ethicscenter.net.

Tate Hurvitz is an instructor at Grossmont College and a fellow with San Diego’s Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.

Dena Plemmons is a scientist at the University of California, San Diego’s Research Ethics Program, and a fellow with San Diego’s Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. Agree with them? Disagree? Submit a letter to the editor here.

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