Chancellor Bishop Witnesses President Obama Ushering in New Era of Scientific Integrity

By Robin Hindery and Lisa Cisneros
UCSF Chancellor J. Michael Bishop, MD, joined his scientific colleagues on Monday to witness President Barack Obama signing an executive order overturning the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. UCSF stem cell scientists talked about what the new stem cell policy means to UCSF and the research community. Read that story here. Bishop flew to Washington over the weekend after receiving an invitation from the Obama administration to attend the much-anticipated proceedings, according to Assistant Chancellor Deborah Brennan. Also sharing the limelight with Obama at the White House on Monday were 2008 UCSF Medal recipient Janet Davison Rowley, MD, an internationally recognized cancer expert, and Harold Varmus, MD, co-chairman of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and Bishop’s co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Obama also signed a presidential memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to “develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.” For many in the scientific community, the action marks a turning point in Bush-era practices that allowed politics to influence funding decisions for scientific research and to interfere with official government findings on issues ranging from sex education to global warming. Obama said that reversing the federal ban on embryonic stem cell research is not only an important step in advancing science, but also signals that his administration will “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” Obama rejected the view of conservatives that the use of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes is tantamount to destroying human life. “When it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” he said. “As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.” Obama’s executive order also calls for proper oversight and directs the National Institutes of Health to draft guidelines within 120 days for the conduct of embryonic stem cell research. “President Obama’s action opens the door for scientific discoveries that will benefit patients, while assuring that this important research is carried out under strict ethical guidelines,” said Bernard Lo, MD, a UCSF professor of medicine and director of the Program in Medical Ethics. Lo, who was invited but could not attend Monday’s signing ceremony, said both UCSF and the state of California have led the nation in establishing “rigorous, comprehensive regulations” for embryonic stem cell research —guidelines he himself help devise as the co-chairman of the Standards Working Group of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. “These policies can serve as a national model for oversight of federal funding,” he said.

Politicizing Science

UCSF Professor and researcher Stanton Glantz, PhD, called Monday’s actions “an important step forward in President Obama’s stated goal of reversing George W. Bush’s systematic politicization of science.” Glantz, director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said he hoped this latest development might lead to a reexamination of a bill moving forward in Congress that would grant the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over tobacco. In its current form, the bill would give tobacco companies undue influence over the rule-making process, Glantz said – “precisely the kind of politicization of science that President Obama has been standing against.” In October, Bishop, Varmus and Stanley Prusiner, MD, director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases and professor of neurology and biochemistry, were among 76 Nobel laureates who signed their names to an open letter to the public endorsing Obama for president. That letter read, in part, “We especially applaud his emphasis during the campaign on the power of science and technology to enhance our nation’s competitiveness. In particular, we support the measures he plans to take – through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research – to meet the nation’s and the world’s most urgent needs.” Two scientists with ties to UCSF have firsthand experience of Bush administration tactics when it came to the politicization of science. Former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, a 1979 graduate of the UCSF School of Medicine, said official government reports were stalled. Carmona and former surgeons general argued for greater autonomy and authority for the position of the nation’s top physician. Although she could not be reached for this story, Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD – who was named to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics in 2002 for her groundbreaking research into cellular events at the tips of chromosomes – also argued for upholding scientific integrity. Blackburn said she had made a conscious decision to join the group, despite its obviously political agenda, because she “wanted to help get the science right.” But Blackburn, Morris Herzstein Endowed Chair in Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, was abruptly dismissed from the council in February 2004, when it had become clear that she was not part of the majority of council members who were intent on upholding the White House’s views of stem cell research regardless of the scientific evidence. Yet Blackburn was not silenced on the issue; nor were her admirers, who sent her numerous emails of support. “I was heartened by the private and public reaction to my disinvitation,” Blackburn recalled to graduate students. “People seemed to understand that you should not be making science policy that didn’t take evidence into account.” Shipra Shukla also contributed to this report. White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Related Links:

76 Nobel Laureates Endorse Obama for President
UCSF Today, Oct. 31, 2008

Former Surgeon General Reports That Politics Trumps Science in National Discourse
UCSF Today, July 12, 2007

Ethics Road Full of Sinkholes, Warn Two UCSF Legends
UCSF Today, April 21, 2006

Influence: Stem Cell Freeze: Blackburn's White House Firing Inflames Science Policy Issues
UCSF Magazine, August, 2004