A Nobel prize for a Bush critic

Never mind Elizabeth Blackburn's contribution to cancer research. In 2004, she shined a light on even nastier stuff

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 5, 2009 8:55PM (EDT)

In his story in today's New York Times about the three American winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, science reporter Nicholas Wade tells us a quite a bit about cell biology and the relevance of the discoveries made by Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak for understanding cancer and the process of aging. We also learn some interesting tidbits about why female scientists are particularly prominent in the field of telomeres research.

But one piece of biographical information about Elizabeth Blackburn was left out -- her brave role in exposing the charade of George W. Bush's "President's Council on Bioethics."

Let's outsource the story to Nick Anthis, at the Scientific Activist.

From 2001 to 2004 [Blackburn] served as one of only three full-time biomedical researchers on the 17-to-18-member council. In 2004, she was fired from the council, along with another member who disagreed with the administration's position on some of the relevant issues.

Blackburn spoke out about the Council of Bioethics, demonstrating that despite its written mission to be a body that monitors research developments and recommends appropriate guidelines, it was really just a tool for parroting the Bush Administration's positions on certain hot-button issues -- particularly embryonic stem cell research. Thus, Blackburn played a central and important role in revealing the extent of the political interference in science that pervaded the Bush Administration.

After her firing, Blackburn published a strongly worded account of her experiences in the New England Journal of Medicine. Her closing paragraph definitely deserves a prize:

When prominent scientists must fear that descriptions of their research will be misrepresented and misused by their government to advance political ends, something is deeply wrong. Leading scientists are routinely called on to volunteer their expertise to the government, through study sections of the National Institutes of Health and advisory panels of the National Academy of Sciences and as advisers to departments ranging from health and human services to defense. It has been the unspoken attitude of the scientific community that it is our duty to serve our government in this manner, independent of our personal political affiliations and those of the administration in effect at the time. But something has changed. The healthy skepticism of scientists has turned to cynicism. There is a growing sense that scientific research -- which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth -- is being manipulated for political ends. There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of advisory bodies and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports. As a naturalized citizen of the United States, I have an immigrant's love for my country. But our country must not fail us. Scientific advice should and must be protected from the influence of politics. Will the President's Council on Bioethics be up to that challenge?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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