When President Barack Obama announced he was reversing a pair of Bush-era embryonic stem cell restrictions, he said that he wanted to take politics out of science policy. Obama said government policy on stem cell research would “use sound, scientific practice and evidence instead of dogma.” Researchers who have been eager to get their hands on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research praised the end of “ideological” limits on science. To the untutored ear, all this may sound fine, but the argument that one can – let alone should – separate science policy from political considerations simply does not hold up.
Science can tell us what is possible, but does not speak to what should and should not be done. A single example makes this clear: the scientists of the Manhattan Project created an atomic bomb, but it was the decision of politicians to use it – just as it was a political decision of statesmen and diplomats to establish a system of non-proliferation to limit the bomb’s use, testing and spread.
Disregarding the vital distinction between scientists and statesmen, the New York Times adopted Obama’s rhetoric and lamented that George W. Bush’s science policy advice was “based on ideology rather than expertise.” But if government were to defer to “experts” in the field, it would eliminate the need for banking regulations or civilian control of the military – after all, financial institutions know their industry better than politicians, just as generals and admirals know of what armies and navies are capable. It is, however, the job of politicians to decide what is permissible and forbidden, whether it comes to regulating the banks, setting the parameters for the military or restricting scientific research.
Writing in the Washington Post, Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, criticized Obama’s “technocratic temptation” in which “no ethical judgement” about the moral status of the embryo is considered, because it is “all a matter of science.” Science, Levin says, “offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing,” but this only. It is a means of acquiring knowledge; how to use knowledge is another matter. Science is, Levin observes, “a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.”
The separation of science and politics is as impossible as a discussion of separating them is foolish. Politics is the act of governing, making choices. Politicians, not scientists, should balance the priorities of scientific ability by the moral standards of society. The philosopher Carl Schmitt noted that even the decision to decide what is beyond the realm of politics is a political decision.
Obama pretends not to be playing politics, never mind that he is fulfilling a campaign promise, using taxpayer dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research and bludgeoning political opponents for pandering to their religious base. But Obama knows this. He is being sly, pretending to eschew politics while playing the game superbly. Truly, Obama does not oppose playing politics. Rather, he opposes the moral conclusions George Bush came to: that the good that might be derived from potential medical benefits from embryonic stem cell research does not outweigh the evil of destroying embryonic human beings that is necessitated by harvesting their stem cells.
It is probably too much to hope that Obama change his mind and support only ethical, life-affirming stem cell research. But it would be nice if he stopped playing politics by pretending to be above the fray when he is, in fact, making political decisions.