February 26, 2024

Sacked biologist fires another volley

Elizabeth Blackburn

Cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn has fired another broadside at President George W. Bush after being dismissed from his Council on Bioethics. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Professor Blackburn claims that she had been sacked because she disagreed with the Council’s chairman, Dr Leon Kass, and because she had complained that the Council’s publications distorted the potential of embryonic stem cell research. She warns that this has set a dangerous precedent as other researchers may refuse to provide expert advice to the US Government if they believethat their work will be “manipulated for political ends”.

Professor Blackburn’s sacking has become a cause celebre in US scientific circles. There appear to be two reasons for this. A number of scientists, warmly supported by the Democrats, notably Congressman Henry A. Waxman, have complained throughout the Bush administration that it uses science for devious political ends. This latest row seems to fit neatly into a pattern of manipulation. But it also is being used as ammunition by supporters of embryo research, which Bush has restricted. The publication of Blackburn’s comments in the prestigious NEJM supports the conviction of its editor, Jeffrey M. Drazen, that US scientists must be allowed to do research on embryonic stem cells. Last year, he vowed to aggressively seek out and publish research on this topic.

The effect of Professor Blackburn’s accusations has been to heighten the scepticism of many American scientists towards the work of Leon Kass and his council. However, as bioethicist Carl Elliott points out in the on-line magazine Slate, the council has done some remarkable work. “The critical ideological divide,” he comments, “may be less right versus left than techno-scepticism versus techno-enthusiasm.”