The waning of the Cold War transformed public debates about science in the transatlantic world. Physics had been the lead science of the Cold War, giving rise to applications for military and civilian use. From the 1970s, technologies to alter a living organism’s DNA and new reproductive therapies pushed the biological sciences and medicine into the public limelight, where the life sciences frequently came to stand for science as a whole. In the case of recombinant (altered) DNA in the 1970s, researchers themselves were among the most vocal critics of experiments they considered dangerous and irresponsible. Since then, the growing number of stakeholders in biology has further complicated the field’s public role. Patient advocacy groups, for example, have demanded that research prioritize particular therapeutic needs. During the 1980s, American patenting laws created economic opportunities for the private sector, including research universities, pharmaceutical companies, and investors. During the past fifty years, the proliferation of interests in the life sciences has gone hand in hand with competing claims by experts in the public sphere. While historians have shown, however, that such competing claims have complicated (and sometimes eroded) public trust in research science, little work has been done on how public debates have affected research.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Varmus presents findings on human embryonic stem cells to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in February 1998. Supported by researchers who had identified them, the NIH sought permission to fund research using such cells. Source: CSPAN

This project focuses on the field of developmental biology as a sample case for studying the integrity of research during contentious public debates. The argument is that the field was successful in deflecting attempts to restrict its research options and that this made it attractive for partisan political endorsement in the United States. This development has helped bring about a political polarization we face today. The first successful cloning of a mammal (“Dolly”) in 1997 and the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 provided a new understanding of human development. It also promised to result in important therapies. But human embryonic stem cells were derived from blastocysts that evolved from fertilized human eggs, which expired after the cells were extracted. For researchers and the public alike, this raised the question of where science should draw the line in pursuit of knowledge and therapies. In 2000 this matter moved into the center of American political debate. While anti-abortion activists mobilized against research using human embryonic stem cells, researchers (and their supporters) success-fully campaigned for public funding. Based on academic publications and interviews with university-based researchers, I am able to show that the field retained its integrity by doubling-down on methodological rigor when outside critics sought to turn the field’s most speculative work against it. Their resilience, in turn, made such a strong political impression that during the 2004 presidential election, the Democratic Party made attacks on Republican George W. Bush’s limited endorsement of stem cell research a centerpiece of its campaign. By tracing the research field’s political and cognitive history side by side, in other words, this project helps explain a key development in the public role of American science in the early twenty-first century.

Related Publications

  • Axel Jansen. “Legitimizing New Knowledge: American Debates about Adult and Embryonic Stem Cells, 1998-2004,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 62 (Fall 2018), 93-110.
  • Axel Jansen. “Stem Cell Debates in an Age of Fracture.” In A. Jansen, A. Franzmann, P. Münte, eds. Legitimizing Science: National and Global Publics, 1800–2010. Frankfurt/New York, Campus, 2015, 221-244.
  • Axel Jansen, Andreas Franzmann and Peter Münte. “Legitimizing Science: Introductory Essay.” In Legitimizing Science: National and Global Publics, 1800-2010, edited by A. Jansen, A. Franzmann and P. Münte. Frankfurt/New York, Campus, 2015, 11-34.