Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lawyers v. Research Funding?

An ongoing personal quest is to attempt to fill in the gaps in my original education, particularly outside the areas of science in which I feel there exist gaping chasms. Through Wikipedia, books and especially recorded college courses, I slowly patch up what the deficiencies of my education (or all too commonly, my youthful deficiencies in attention during that education) have failed to cover. I'm currently making a third pass through a wonderful course on Roman history since I enjoyed it very much the first two times.

During Rome's early expansion it was ruled by rotating sets of elected officials under a system known to us as the Roman Republic. A series of events (known to scholars as the Roman Revolution) over many decades disrupted this system, culiminating in the replacement of the Republic with the military dictatorship of the Emperors, which would remain until the fall of the empire. An initiating event in the Revolution was an official named Tiberius Gracchus, who in the service of high-minded ideals (rewarding landless soldiers with their own plots on which to support themselves), changed the nature of Roman politics by introducing mob violence to the process (as well as a certain degree of ruthlessness in dealing with the opposition of colleagues).

I fear that yesterday's court decision regarding embryonic stem cell research represents a similar horrible turn. Now, what most commentators will focus on is the very issue of creating human embryonic stem cells and whether the government should finance this. This is an area in which the proponents of both sides of the issue have deeply and sincerely held beliefs which I feel must be respected, though in the end they are fundamentally irreconcilable. But peripheral to that, the case represents a very scary intrusion of lawyers into the research funding process.

One of the claims made by the plaintiffs (in particular, the research James Sherley) is that the new guidelines on what embryonic stem cell research can be funded represent a very real cause of harm to those working on adult stem cell research; they will have more competition for research funding. That is certainly true; if we view research funding for stem cells as a zero sum game (and that is another whole can of balled waxworms I won't dela with). The danger now is that every possible change in federal (or even private?) funding aim will be an opportuntity for litigators to intrude. Wind down project X to fund project Y? LAWSUIT! Either this will dissuade funding from the ebb and flow which is necessary, or a far worse than zero sum game ensues in which funding for science instead funds litigation (or the buy-offs of potential suits which are routine in that field).

Can this genie be stuffed back in the bottle? I'm not legally trained enough to know. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps we need Congress to explicitly forbid it (but would that be legal?) -- and what are the chances of that? Has a terrible Rubicon been crossed; I hope I am wrong in thinking it has.

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