Following the Money

Last week, the South Korean government revoked the license of scientist Hwang Woo-Suk. The revocation followed revelations that Hwang, whose claimed breakthroughs in cloning made him a national hero, had fabricated his data. Hwang is now barred from "cloning or receiving human eggs for stem cell research." While the most notorious con job in biotechnology has been widely exposed, the biggest and most important bit of dishonesty is still open for business, literally. Following the Hwang scandal, supporters of embryonic stem-cell research insisted that Hwang's fraud said little, if anything, about the field as a whole. They agreed with Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania that fraud is "a problem that clings to an individual, not a line of scientific inquiry." If by fraud Caplan means the fabrication of data, he's right. But there is a more basic bit of dishonesty at work in this field, one that does cling to the whole enterprise. That dishonesty was summed up in a recent St. Paul Pioneer-Press headline: "Embryonic stem cells help patents, not patients." According to Jean Swenson, what drives the push for embryonic stem-cell research is that it "provides greater research and patent potentials for scientists, research institutions, and biotech industry." In other words, it's potentially far more lucrative than research involving adult stem cells. Swenson, "a quadriplegic as a result of a 1980 car accident," advises readers: "Follow the money." That's exactly what journalist Neil Munro did in a National Journal article titled "Mixing Business with Stem Cells." As Munro put it, "the pecuniary interests of the physicians and scientists performing the research" is also "shaping the debate" over embryonic stem-cell research. Swenson's and Munro's arguments would, no doubt, come as a surprise if all you knew about embryonic stem cells is what you read or heard in the mainstream media. There, the story is framed as though breakthrough cures and alleviating suffering were being obstructed by the forces of religious fanaticism. But the real story is about "the commingling of scientific and business concerns," where "promising science [is] sometimes downplayed" due to "financial interests." Like Swenson, Munro cites how the potential of adult stem cells -- about which there is no moral objection -- is downplayed. Even researchers who have, in their words, "placed [their] bets on adult stem-cell research," publicly minimize the potential of research they're continuing to do. The reason is money. A 1980 federal law allows scientists to "patent the results of publicly funded research." They can "form biotech companies to develop patents" or "sell their patents to biotech or pharmaceutical firms." In either case, they have a substantial financial incentive to depict embryonic stem-cell research in the most positive way possible. According to Munro, researchers view these conflicts of interests as incurable. Well, the industry, of course, doesn't want them cured. That leaves Christians and other pro-life citizens with the task of bringing some honesty to a field where following the money leads from the lab to the corporate boardroom. The next time politicians try to push for more funding of embryonic stem-cell research ask them to follow the money.


Chuck Colson


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