Metal Yarmulke
Friday, November 28, 2003

The reverse brain drain

I tend not to blog on scientific and/or technological matters because they're largely way out of my expertise. But I thought I'd post a link to this Wired article about a senior biologist who's fled the U.S. for the U.K. because of the existing ban on stem-cell research.

Two and a half years ago, President Bush restricted federal funding for research that uses embryonic stem cells. So one of America's top scientists in the field, Roger Pederson, got the hell out of Dodge. He resigned from UC San Francisco and started the Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the University of Cambridge, in England. It was a controversial move in a controversial field; Pederson was the most senior scientist to relocate, responding to British promises of a welcoming environment, both in terms of funding and ethics rules. Now Pederson has the resources to continue his work — and to ask what our protean nature tells us about being human.

Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds links to an article at New Scientist about a London firm, TriStem, that claims it "can turn ordinary blood into cells capable of regenerating damaged or diseased tissues. This could transform the treatment of everything from heart disease to Parkinson's." It would also largely bypass the controversy over stem-cell use.

Like Reynolds, I certainly hope it's true too. However, I note in the article that other scientists are wary of TriStem's founder, Ilham Abuljadayel, because she's never had these results published in a reputable journal, she's never held a permanent academic position, and TriStem's work flies in the face of scientific dogma that specialized cells cannot revert back to an unspecialized state or be converted into a different type of specialized cell. Perhaps these are all political quibbles — scientists play politics as much as any other professionals do, and they are after all academics in great part. But I'm not knowledgeable enough to bet one way or the other.

The research environment in Great Britian isn't a scientist's Eden. Animal research is still heavily, and often violently, opposed, to a much greater degree than it is here. The same Luddite contingent also loudly denounces genetic modification to foods. But those factions have nowhere as much political power as do anti-abortion American politicians to thwart research that offends their personal sensibilities. Pedersen's defection, if you will, to a nation that's at the moment and in the balance more congenial to scientific progress being made in its labs has worrisome implications for the U.S.

I'm not one who makes a hobby of bashing America as "backward" and so forth. I think we get a lot of things right that Europe and even Britain do not, largely because we're less hobbled by the Left, and possibly even in part because, rather than in spite of, the percentage of Americans who profess to a religion. (That includes not only non-Christians, and not only non-monotheists, but pagans, a number of whom are my friends.)

But in the U.S., we can't even teach evolution as universally accepted by the reputable scientific community without a large percentage screaming that their own religious creation myth should be taught alongside it as equally valid. Let alone acknowledge that teenagers are by nature sexual beings and thus abstinence-only programs don't work (and note in which publication that article appeared; hint: it's not a left-wing one). So I don't have high hopes for a sensible stem-cell research policy any time soon. 
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