The Public Role of the Life Sciences in the Twenty-first Century

Axel Jansen

This project focuses on the field of developmental biology as a sample case for investigating the public role of the life sciences in the transatlantic world. The first successful cloning of a mammal (“Dolly”) in 1997 and the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 helped foster 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 political debates in many countries. In the US, anti-abortion activists mobilized against research using human embryonic stem cells while researchers (and their supporters) campaigned for public funding. Based on academic publications and interviews with university-based researchers, I trace the research field’s political and cognitive history side by side in order to explain a key development in the public role of American science in the early twenty-first century. I am currently working on two essays, one focusing on the history of Proposition 71, the successful ballot initiative in support of stem cell research in California in 2004, and another on the Vatican’s endorsement of certain kinds of stem cell research during the 2010s.

Related Publications

  • Axel Jansen and Claudia Roesch, “Introduction”, special section “Biomedicine in Contemporary History,” Journal of Contemporary History 57:4 (Oct. 2022): 843-58. Available online.

  • Axel Jansen. “Legitimizing New Knowledge: American Debates about Adult and Embryonic Stem Cells, 1998-2004,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute62 (Fall 2018): 93-110. Available online.

  • 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.