Ethics & Public Policy Center

Science Over All?

Published in Washington Post on March 10, 2009


Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.


In announcing his policy on federal funding of stem cell research, President Obama inadvertently cast a bright light on a dangerous temptation in science policy that ought to give Americans pause.

What you think of his policy depends on what you think of the moral status of embryos. If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems. But if you think an embryo is not quite a person, or that its immaturity or inability to suffer pain or its other qualities mean that destroying an embryo does not amount to taking a life, the promise of stem cell science might well outweigh any doubts.

That legitimate dispute underlies the stem cell debate. But that is not the ground on which the president made his case yesterday. He argued that to deny free rein to stem cell science is to ignore and reject the promise of science as such. In a barely concealed swipe at his predecessor, he pledged that his administration would “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

The executive order Obama signed omits any mention of ethical debate. The entirety of the case it makes for itself is that “advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by Federal funds.” And while Obama promised that his policy would be bound by ethical guidelines, he left it to the scientists of the National Institutes of Health to define the rules. The issue, he suggested, is a matter of science, not politics.

But science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so.

There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science. To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities — economic, political and ethical — in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty. And to govern the practice of scientific techniques that threaten to violate important moral boundaries is not only legitimate but in some cases essential.

It is also difficult, and American policymakers have long been inclined to cede control of science policy to technical experts. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy put plainly the case for this technocratic temptation:

“Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint, Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, moderate. . . . [But] the fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them, that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of 'passionate movements' which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are beyond the comprehension of most men.”

By this logic, an increasing proportion of public concerns must be kept beyond the reach of democracy and be handed over to scientists or other experts to manage. This view is powerfully displayed in some of our prominent science debates, especially regarding stem cells.

In a prior iteration of that debate, while he was serving in the Senate, Obama told reporters that “the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.” This is a concise articulation of the technocratic temptation in science policy, reaffirmed by the president's remarks yesterday. It argues not for an ethical judgment regarding the moral worth of human embryos but, rather, that no ethical judgment is called for: that it is all a matter of science.

This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Modern science offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing. It is the role of elected policymakers to consider the knowledge that science offers and the power it gives us, and to balance these with other priorities — be they economic as in the case of environmental policy, strategic as in the case of nonproliferation or moral as in the case of embryonic stem cells. In all these areas, politics ought to govern, with science merely its handmaiden. Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.

–Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was executive director of the President's Council on Bioethics from 2003 to 2005. He is the author of Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.

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