Speaker series hosts stem cell research discussion

On Wednesday, September 10, Georgia Tech hosted a seminar on the ongoing debate over stem cell research.

The guest speaker was Jason Owen Smith, a sociologist from the University of Michigan whose primary field of study is the interaction between technology, the government and commerce. Smith studies how the interactions between religious organizations, research institutes, biomedical companies and government officials have shaped the development of stem cell research and the debate surrounding it.

The seminar began with a brief summary of the debate surrounding stem cell research, the history behind it and why Smith was interested in it. “I became aware of Embryonic Stem Cells as an example of the commercialization of science and technology,” Smith said. “There’s the potential for real money here, which, of course, has gotten lots of interest from industries and the government.”

He also states that, in this case, “I’ve decided to focus more on the science-politics axis [rather than] my normal science-market axis.” He sees the debate as an example of the broader tension between science and politics: the choice between autonomous scientific research (where what is researched and how is left largely to the experts in the laboratory) and democracy (where taxpayers have a say in what research their money is used for).

He then reached the main subject of his talk, which consisted of a breakdown of the debate and how it has changed over time. When the argument first came about, the topic at the crux of the debate was obvious: the status of the embryos used for research. As Smith puts it, people were arguing over the status of “the stuff in the dish,” debating whether to regard the embryos as blastocysts (i.e. balls of cells) or as people.

That changed, though, when, in August 2001, President Bush issued an executive order that allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but restricted it to research done on lines of cells that had already been derived. After this, the crux of the debate shifted more to whether or not these lines would be sufficient.

To study these two debates, Smith and his associates analyzed 111 testimonies from various interest groups before Congress. They used a technique that Smith calls “inductive thematic coding,” which, in layman’s terms, means they searched the testimonies for certain tropes, or themes, that could be used to classify the different ways the debate was being approached. They then analyzed this data and associated the various themes with the interest groups that tended to use them most often.

Smith accomplished this by first breaking down the argument into twenty-three broad themes, examples of which include scientific progress, the democratic representation theme mentioned above, medical potential, different kinds of expertise (i.e. ethicists versus biomedical researchers versus patients who could benefit from the research) and the status of the materials.

He then went through the approximately 1700 pages of testimony and, on a sentence-by-sentence level, attempted to identify which of the twenty-three themes individual arguments made use of. His research found that, up until August 2001, most everyone used the themes of (in descending order of usage) the status of the materials, claims of expertise, the legality of the research and the value of scientific progress.

After August 2001, however, the impact of the Bush plan showed itself in the way it changed how the interest groups debated. The main focus of the debate shifted, and arguments began to lean much more heavily on scientific progress, potential for finding cures for diseases, potential for answering scientific questions, and the issue of how the research would changed if it received funding from the private sector, rather than the public sector.

“For sociologists, it’s interesting how this policy argument has shifted…It’s no longer a fight about whether the embryos are human; it’s now a fight about whether the Bush-approved cell lines are legitimately sufficient for the science. [Supporters] move away from broad claims about the autonomy of science to claims about how science can help humanity,” Smith said.

This leads to one question: what happened? Smith states that the answer has three parts, “First, the Bush announcement, to a certain extent, yanks the rug out from under the more conservative and religious arguments. Two, scientific advances change the language and bring scientists together with patients more and more…Three, and perhaps most importantly, the development of alternatives to federal funding…shifts the lines of debate and make it possible for scientists and patient groups to vote with their feet.”