The Niche

Stem-cell researchers and stem-cell research advocates

Tuesday night and the night before, I went to events designed for scientists and non-scientists to mingle. It made me think about what stem-cell-research activists tell me frustrates them most about stem-cell scientists.

On Monday night, a complete stranger made dinner for me and others he’d identified in the stem-cell field. Peter Kuperman, a hedge fund manager who likes to cook, hosts modern-day salons on topics he finds interesting. And though I had misgivings (surely only psychopaths and pushy salespeople invite strangers into their homes), I went and found that it was exactly what he’d billed it to be.

It was nice to see scientists in their human contexts: sleepy from peer-reviewing a manuscript, worried about finding the best school for their children, excited for their spouses’ careers. It was instructive to see how what has become conventional wisdom to those inside the field is still news to those outside it.

On Tuesday night, I went to San Francisco’s Ask-A-Scientist: free monthly lectures by scientists to standing-room only crowds. As part of a discussion on ancient science, our speaker defined its modern counterpart: a consensus-driven community that cautiously advances hypotheses backed by evidence collected through rigorous methodologies.

I hadn’t considered the consensus-driven aspect, but it’s true. One current scientific controversy is whether certain tumours arise from stem-cell-like progenitors or from differentiated cells. Those in one camp don’t seek to split from those in the other camp; they want to convert them. They want that conversion to be honest, not forced; those in one camp should be drawn to the other not by bullies or charismatic personalities, but through logic and data. That’s why many reviewers want to be anonymous, and why some scientists want authors to be anonymous as well.

Consensus building through logical arguments built on empirical data is much of what makes the scientific community a community. It’s one reason why scientists volunteer to review grants and papers. Perhaps more than in other disciplines, scientists expect their arguments to be heard in full and carefully rebutted. Problems come when they interact beyond the community. Scientists don’t always anticipate that a reporter will sometimes listen to a long, cautious explanation and then use only the most enthusiastic sentence.

This leads to why stem cell researchers and stem-cell research advocates misunderstand each other.

The news that cultured human skin cells had been reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state came in late November of last year. Embryonic stem-cell researchers crowed over the accomplishment: how it advanced understanding of the rules governing cell potential; it promised more-accessible research tools and, maybe, cell therapies. Many embryonic stem-cell-research advocates despaired, fearing that the discovery would give ammunition to those who wish to ban all embryonic stem cell research. Scientists’ enthusiasm went off-message, many advocates chided. Advocates felt betrayed that scientists who reviewed the breakthrough papers hadn’t warned them before publication so they could prepare a media response.

But, for the most part, scientists act to ensure that consensus-building mechanisms are driven by logic; that means saying what they think and taking seriously the promises of confidentiality given during the review process. If advocates convince scientists they must act otherwise to ensure favorable policy, they risk weakening what gives the scientific community, and science, its strength.

Advocates that support scientific research have worked hard and with some success to convince scientists that they must reach out to the general public so that society can value and support their work, but I think lecturing scientists about being “on message” could seed distrust. It would be far, far better and easier for scientists to learn to convey the essential skepticism of their discipline than to learn to convey one particular message.

To me the quintessential scientist is one who says, “I think I’ve found the most exciting thing ever. Now I have to work as hard as I can to see if I can prove it wrong.” Some apparently exciting things really are; some aren’t. For most reading this blog, the exciting thing is that cells not derived from embryos can behave like embryonic stem cells; the hard work necessary to know if it’s really true means comparing these cells with embryonic stem cells, that means work with embryonic stem cells to know which cells can answer which questions. That’s not a message; that’s a thought process more people should understand.

I don’t pretend to have any answers for how researchers and research advocates can work together more productively, but I’ve spent the last two nights watching non-specialists and specialists spending their leisure time together, and I think the answer may lie somewhere in that.


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