Since at least the end of World War II, the United States has arguably been the major center for advanced research in science and technology. This has been possible, at least in part, because many of the best and brightest students and scholars have come to study or carry out research at our world-class research universities and in our centers of industry.
One wonders, however, how much longer the United States will enjoy this primacy if our government continues to place ideology above scientific results, both in public policy initiatives and in support of fundamental research.
Concern about government distortion of scientific results has been growing among scientists over the past six years. In February 2004, for example, 60 prominent American scientists, among which I was privileged to count myself, voiced their concern over the misuses of science by the current Bush administration — including the manipulation of public access to information resulting from scientific studies, disbanding scientific advisory committees, placing unqualified individuals on these committees, and suppressing or altering reports by government scientists. Since that time, more than 9,000 additional scientists have signed on to this call for scientific integrity in government.
Attempts to distort science have not been limited to the federal government. In numerous states, including my own, Ohio, state school boards have attempted to alter the teaching of high school science to give students the impression that various bedrocks of modern science, including evolutionary biology, are somehow “suspect.” Via a disingenuous campaign called “Teach the Controversy,” various groups that oppose the teaching of evolution on religious grounds have helped to convince many among the public that evolution is not on firm scientific ground — in spite of the fact that almost all of modern biology is based on the predictions of evolution, which have successfully confronted experiment and observation for more than 100 years.
One might argue that distorting evolutionary biology for some high school students will not impede the education of our country’s very brightest students, those who may go on to become tomorrow’s scientific stars. In at least one area, however, government interference has already begun to put prominent researchers in this country at a disadvantage: stem-cell research.
Because of government restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells, American researchers are forced to either seek private funding for their work or go abroad. There has already been a minor exodus of such researchers to places like the United Kingdom and Singapore, where there is active support for this important area of biomedical research.
Here in the United States, by contrast, there is strong resistance to even the most benign efforts at stem-cell research. Last week an American company, Advanced Cell Technology, announced that is had developed a process that appears to allow an embryo-safe extraction of stem cells. One might have expected that this would be considered a welcome development, as it would in principle obviate the concerns of some about the possible destruction of embryos that could theoretically develop into viable human beings. Already, however, several prominent religious opponents of stem-cell research have issued statements declaring even this process unacceptable.
The use of embryos for research is arguably an issue about which legitimate differences of opinion can arise. What is the motivation for continuing a moratorium on federal funding of stem-cell research, however, if it can be shown that embryos from which stem cells may be extracted are not themselves damaged?
Could it be that objections to such research might spring from the same factor that governs much of the opposition to the teaching of evolution — namely, the perception that somehow science is immoral because it deals with purely physical questions, and not questions of the soul?
It is not without basis that I pose this question. Last month I published an essay in The New York Times on the necessity of teaching evolution. I subsequently received information, which I then passed on to the media, that the Department of Education had apparently omitted evolutionary biology as an acceptable field of study for recipients of the National Smart Grant, a new program designed to support needy university students in their third and fourth year of study in science and math. Evolutionary biology was the only area of fundamental science research — among perhaps 100 different majors — that was conspicuously absent from a list provided by the Department of Education.
Thankfully, public outcry following the disclosure of the omission led the Department of Education to reinstate evolutionary biology to the list of eligible majors. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the omission was deliberate, and if so, at what level it was approved. It is chilling to even consider the possibility that our government might limit access to advanced education on the basis of ideological or religious prejudices.
If we are to allow censorship of knowledge — either for our promising undergraduate students, or for our preeminent research scientists — based on a misplaced fear that knowledge can be a threat to faith, are we not risking sliding down the slippery slope that leads to medieval theocracies, characterized in their most extreme form by groups like the Taliban in Afganistan?
Each of us has a responsibility to remain vigilant against ideological constraints on the search for knowledge. As Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, put it: “The First Amendment protects against the government establishment of religion, but that doesn’t mean it will protect against bad science.”
It is our collective duty to protect against bad science, through the free and open dissemination of information — and perhaps through the ballot box.
Lawrence Krauss, director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University, is author of “Hiding in the Mirror” (Viking Adult, 2005).