Michael Totten

Tilting at Science

Michael Crowly writes in The New Republic about how America is rapidly falling behind the curve in a key sector of biotechnology.

Last month, The Boston Globe published a science article, datelined from far away Brno, Czech Republic, that carried political implications for the Bush administration much closer to home. Surveying research laboratories around the world–including one in tiny Brno–the Globe found that embryonic stem cell research has blazed ahead in foreign countries since George W. Bush cut off federal funding for such efforts in the U.S nearly three years ago. According to the Globe, foreign scientists have developed nearly 100 new embryonic stem cell lines since Bush announced his policy in August 2001. That confirms one warning Bush’s critics issued at the time: that embryonic stem cell research would continue rapidly with or without U.S. sanction, and that Bush’s policy would make America–which has already been losing its scientific hegemony in other areas–a bystander in a vanguard field.

America most likely will benefit from the “wicked” stem cell research in the Czech Republic. In the era of globalization, there will be no keeping out biotech products unless religious conservatives somehow manage to pull a European-style freakout and ban them outright.
Virginia Postrel wrote about this phenomenon in The Future and Its Enemies. She divided people into two groups — dynamists and stasists. Dynamists are classically liberal, open, and tolerant. Most important, they aren’t control freaks. They let others do as they will, permitting creativity and innovation to flourish. Dynamic societies are vastly more successful than closed static societies. (You could say, although she did not because her book is too old, that the Terror War is an epic confrontation between dynamism and stasism.)
There are two kinds of stasists: technocrats and reactionaries. Communists are the ultimate technocrats. They are progressive rather than reactionary, but they insist on managing every last aspect of progress in the most controlling way possible. The Taliban were their evil opposite twins, resisting any and every sort of progress whatsoever.
This isn’t a partisan thing. There are right-wing technocrats, too. You could say Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was one of those. Left-wing reactionaries aren’t too hard to find. Look no further than Europe’s hysterical fear of genetically-modified food.
As far as the religious conservative objection to funding stem cell research, there might be a moral justification for it, but that doesn’t make it any less reactionary. The United States is arguably the most dynamic society on earth. Banning or restricting research and development of anything that isn’t unquestionably harmful goes against the American grain. We became great by unleashing freedom and creativity, not by restricting it, and not by sponging off the labor of more dynamic foreigners.
American conservatives can tilt at the supposed immorality of stem cell research if they really feel like they must, but it won’t change much from any perspective they care about. They can’t stop it, not really. It only means the Czechs or someone else will lead the way and export the results of their labor to us. America will benefit from the research and the products one way or another, at least in a strictly consumerist sense, but the Czechs will benefit more if we hand them that industry. The Bush Administration’s position amounts to little more than moralistic posturing and should be rescinded at once.