Were California voters duped in supporting public funding of embryonic stem cell research? In 2004, they approved Proposition 71, a ballot measure that would allow the state to borrow $3 billion in order to push through the unethical research. Now, six years later, award-winning science journalist Sally Lehrman asks that question in the L.A. Times—and blames the media rather than the people who did the deceiving:
So were Californians duped?
Some would say yes. “There have been no cures, no therapies and little progress,” Investors Business Daily complained in an editorial earlier this year. Rush Limbaugh went further, declaring embryonic stem cell research “fraudulent, fake.”
But the truth is that science is a long and arduous process, and “breakthroughs” rest on a foundation of basic science. Most of the money spent so far has gone into new labs, training, tools and technologies and basic research, building blocks that are necessary precursors to discovery.
The public is aware that science is a “long and arduous process.” But ESCR was not sold as basic, speculative science but as an alchemical process that, with sufficient funding, could turn “discarded” embroyos into a cure for grandmother’s Alzheimer’s within a few years. The idea that therapeutic treatments were not imminent would have come as a surprise to the average Prop. 71 voter. Had they been told they were giving more money to their bankrupt state to buy petri dishes today for “basic research” they would have balked. Had they been told the truth—that such research will never, ever produce such cures—they would have been outraged at having been defrauded.
Instead of exposing this massive fraud—as a responsible journalist would do—Lehrman turns into a propagandist for the people who perpetuated this multi-billion dollar boondoggle:
It’s no surprise that the initiative’s proponents made big promises: They had something to sell. But instant miracles are uncommon in science, and journalists should do a better job making that clear. We need to highlight the uncertainties in science and, in medical quests such as stem cell therapies, emphasize the baby steps involved that in fact are big leaps: reproducing and growing these flexible cells, understanding how they work, using them to learn about disease, designing treatments and then testing the safety of any resulting therapy.
In the aftermath of the stem cell initiative, William H. Fisher, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Assn. of Northern California and Northern Nevada, found himself repeatedly having to explain such matters to hopeful families. “I don’t blame the Prop. 71 people, I blame the media,” he says. Alzheimer’s regularly led the list of potential stem cell cures in news reports, he says, but there’s no reason right now to believe that embryonic stem cells will solve the disease.
Was the horrible media misleading the people with overhyped stories while stem-cell researchers and ESCR advocates were attempting to warn the public that cures would only come far, far, far in the future?
Of course not. Supporters of Prop. 71 convinced the public to fork out more money to the failing state by ladling out a potent mix of white lies, wishful thinking, and outright deception. The media drank the Kook-Aid too of course, because on certain issues (particularly controversial science) they are more gullible than most. But it was the biomedical scientific community that allowed this fraud to be perpetuated on the public. They are the ones that must be held accountable.
However, since we’re focusing on the gullible media, let’s return to Lehrman, who proves to be even less savvy than the reporters she criticizes. She makes the bizarre claim (similar to one often heard in the global warming debate) that reporting the “other side of the story” forced pro-ESCR scientists to overstate claims about their research:
When we pit enthusiastic researchers against those who cite moral objections or technical difficulties, we obscure the uncertainty that scientists themselves acknowledge. In such a context, “the belief that a cure is ‘just around the corner’ is able to develop and circulate,” wrote sociologist Robert Evans and colleagues last year in a study of stem cell rhetoric.
Lehrman accuses her fellow journalists of falling down on the job, yet turns around and acts as an apologist for the very people who were deceiving the public. Throughout the article she pretends that the Prop. 71-supporting scientists were well-meaning, if a bit overeager, and had no intention of misleading the public. She seems completely unaware that they might have a rational motive for hyping the research. It has long been acknowledged (though, again, Lehrman seems to be completely unaware) that the researchers can use the “labs, training, tools and technologies” provided by government-funding to become extremely wealthy.
In 2002, the left-leaning Washington Monthly wrote about how such conflict of interests are common yet rarely discussed:
Today, many university scientists are neither teachers nor disinterested experts, but a hybrid–part executive and part researcher–pursuing new and little-understood business strategies. Like most academics, they have university affiliations and spend most of their time performing research.
But unlike, say, English professors, their research generates promising new medical patents and technologies, on which scientists can capitalize by launching their own off-campus biotech companies. These companies rarely sell therapies directly to patients. Instead they usually sell the fruits of their research–such as a gene-analysis device or a special type of laboratory animal–to large, established firms. Those larger firms buy their patented research in the hope they can be drawn upon to produce products or therapies for the consumer market. The research performed by academic entrepreneurs thus acts as a kind of catalyst on the broader field of biotechnology, which means that everyone involved–the entrepreneurs, universities, investors, and the firms who license patented technologies–prefer that it be as unrestricted as possible.
Even if embryo destructive research proves to be a complete failure (as many will privately acknowledge is likely) the process and procedures that are developed along the way can be a financial boon to them (though not necessarily the taxpayers). Is it any wonder they would be “enthusiastic” about getting billions in tax dollars that can be used to make them rich? These researchers are only human. Under similar circumstances, how many of us would be able to refuse the temptation to exaggerate?
But while its understandable—if not excusable considering the cost in human lives—that researchers would allow their own interests to trump those of the general public, the media’s job is to tell the whole truth. On this point, Lehrman is justified in chastising the media for its failure. Indeed, despite such shoddy and biased reporting, Lehrman has achieved her goal: Her own article is evidence that science writers are unable to adequately report on the true nature of embryonic stem cell research.