On the necessity of politics and values in science

Marcy Darnovsky in Democracy:

It is not “anti-science” or illegitimate to bring political values to bear on science policy–even when it’s Bush or his religious supporters doing it. To suppress scientific evidence or distort research findings because they are politically inconvenient, to disregard expert advice and relevant technical information–these practices are anti-science, and the Bush Administration made a habit of them. But to consider social and ethical values in the course of crafting policy is not only appropriate, but necessary. And disagreement about social and ethical values, or about how to apply them, is a necessary aspect of democratic political contestation.

Progressives were correct both to attack the Bush Administration’s “anti-science” conduct and to oppose the fundamentalist right’s influence on its science policy decisions. But they took a wrong turn when they blurred the two. Intense animus against religious conservatives’ bioethical beliefs, coupled with extreme enthusiasm about stem-cell research, led many progressives toward positions that implicitly or explicitly ruled social values out of order in science policy.

Carried to an extreme, which it sometimes was, this meant that some progressives came to discount the importance of regulation and oversight of scientific practice and applications; overlooked conflicts of interest and corporate encroachments in science-related activities; and shortchanged the need for broad public discussion of the social and moral implications of science policy. Surely this is the wrong approach to a progressive politics of science.

Our job, now that we’re not fighting a rearguard action every day, is to determine the appropriate relationship between science and politics, and between science and state. The task is particularly urgent with regard to fast-evolving human biotechnologies: cloning for research and reproduction; sex selection and “designer babies”; race-specific drugs; “personalized genomics”; and markets in kidneys, eggs, and wombs. These emerging or proposed applications have been catapulted into public awareness by technical and commercial developments over the past decade, and can be referred to as “biopolitics.”

The birth of this kind of biopolitics was unfortunately timed. It coincided with the partisan polarization of recent years, which drowned out thoughtful deliberation about anything with a connection to the politics of reproduction, including many human biotechnologies. But genetic and reproductive biotechnologies raise political challenges that go beyond embryos. They pose questions about social justice and the common good, about democratic accountability and sensible regulation. Some of them present social predicaments that are unprecedented in human experience.

These are the questions we must ponder: How will human biotechnologies reshape our sense of ourselves, our relationships, the shape and feel of the world we occupy together? Who will profit, who will lose, and who will survive in the biotech age? Celebrity scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies? Attractive college students whose eggs are in demand? Poor villagers in developing countries who sell their kidneys or rent their wombs? People with Down syndrome? Techno-utopian ideologues who think human improvement depends on biological “enhancements” rather than social change? What rules will govern human biotech practices, and who will enforce them?

A good one!

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