The President's announcement yesterday that he intends to lift the eight-year Bush ban on federally funded human stem cell research presents the political left with an interesting problem. It's truly a puzzler and places the President in a pickle.
The hue and outcry has been immediate, and somewhat surprising... until you look at the way the President himself framed the issue. His intention, he said, is "to take the politics out of science" and to encourage the process of free and unhindered enquiry by bracketing all prior religious or political (or scientific?) commitments. The lifting of the ban was a crucial moment in the defense of free speech and the exercise of free expression, said the President.
This kind rhetoric is maddening to conservatives and rightly so; it places their moral concerns on a back burner, by suggesting that the articulation of such concern makes one anti-scientific.
Don't get me wrong: President Obama is surely right to announce, and in bold terms, that the nightmarish conditions under which scientists were forced to work under the Bush regime--with its casual disregard for the rule of law, its faith-based funding restrictions, its gag rules, and its systematic shutdown of research projects it did not like--represented the politicization of scientific enquiry in deeply disturbing ways.
And it carried a cost; the Bush administration created a great flight of scientists to the private sector, to foreign countries, and it decimated the morale at some of the premier scientific institutions funded by the US government, the Centers for Disease Control most notably.
But the President is wrong to suggest that politics can simply be extracted from scientific enquiry. This simple statement is actually part of much larger misunderstanding of the emergence of a conflict between modern science and traditional religion.
Read the rest at Religion Dispatches.