The New Role of Science in American Society

Stem Cell Debates since 1998

Axel Jansen

This research project touches on several of the GHI’s research areas, including American history, the history of science, and the history of knowledge. The global research context of stem cell research since 1970 provides opportunities for transnational comparisons of public responses to knowledge emerging from scientific research and, in turn, the impact of those responses on research through, for example, decisions on governmental regulation or funding.

Stem cells entered the global public arena in 1998 when James Thomson, a developmental biologist at the University of Wisconsin, and John Gearhart, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins University, announced that both of their teams had isolated and cultured human embryonic stem cells (hES cells). Developmental biologists had assumed since the 1960s that stem cells, unlike other cells, are able to self-renew and to give rise to more differentiated cells in the body. They had established a hierarchical model of cells, with embryonic stem cells at the top and more differentiated stem cells and other cells of the various tissue types below. Developing such a model was one thing but actually finding elusive embryonic stem cells was another. James Thomson had begun to look for human embryonic stem (hES) in fertilized human eggs in the mid-nineties and in 1998 he announced that he had been able to gather them. This sparked a public debate because the derivation of such cells from blastocysts (early-stage embryos) caused its demise. That was too deep a price to pay, opponents argued, no matter how promising research with hES cells might be. Public reactions and regulatory responses differed widely in the countries in which this research was discussed. In the U.S., political debate focused on the question whether the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should be allowed to fund such research.

The ensuing stem cell debate represents larger shifts in the role of science in American society. Physics had fed into key technologies symbolizing American leadership during the Cold War. The prominence of issues related to biology from the 1970s moved public attention away from a state-centered consideration of research. These developments cumulated in the stem cell debate of the late 1990s and 2000s. “The issues that challenge us today,” biochemist Paul Berg observed in 2001, “are often intertwined with economic self-interest and increasingly beset by nearly irreconcilable ethical, religious, and legal conflicts, as well as by challenges to deeply held social values.” Among the participants in the debate were religiously guided opponents and defenders of stem cell research, patient advocacy groups, researchers in academia, biotechnology companies, and political groups and activists. 

While political scientists and sociologists have thoroughly investigated the history and prehistory of the regulation of stem cell research since 1998, I am concerned with the debate’s implications for the legitimacy of science in America. How did researchers involved in stem cell research prepare for public controversy as they became aware of the ethical implications of their work? How did political attacks on the field of stem cell research affect its research agenda? Are the shifting terms of the debate between 1998 and 2006 indicative of growing public understanding, if not acceptance, of new knowledge? During that period, private donors and individual American states provided billions of dollars of support for stem cell research. Do such developments indicate devolution of political authority from the federal level to the states? If we assume that the nation-state has advanced processes of secularization in the past, what does this suggest about the role of religion and of values of rationality represented by science?

This project grew out of research that the sociologist Andreas Franzmann and I undertook with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation at the University of Tübingen and at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It was part of our effort to mobilize a revised concept of professionalization to investigate various fields of research since 1970, and to understand how these fields have dealt with challenges arising from their involvement in contentious debates with national and global audiences. In an attempt to compare ways in which fields of research may or may not be equipped to handle such challenges, we focused on stem cell research and on the vastly different field of Islamic studies. We published our preliminary findings in an edited volume on Legitimizing Science: National and Global Publics, 1800-2010 (Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2016). We are now working on an article to suggest that an updated concept of science as a profession provides a useful framework to compare research fields in the natural sciences to others in the humanities and in the social sciences.