Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Making scientific promises

Today, Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed a proposition supporting funding for embryonic stem cell research. One of the many claims made by supporters of stem cell research is that it can help find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease, which afflicts nearly 3% of Americans between the ages of 65 and 74.

The concept of using embryonic stem cells to cure such diseases is tantalizing: in principle, the idea that such cells can be "nudged" into forming different kinds of adult cells indicates that cells (like brains cells) that do not regenerate can be replaced/replenished using stem cells.

What worries me though are the kinds of claims that are being made on behalf of stem cell research. Strategically, one can understand the desire to relate this to actual disease prevention (almost all NIH grant proposals mention a connection cancer in the first few paragraphs !), but it also appears at least plausible that there is a long way to go from the basic science of stem cell development to an actual disease treatment. Suppose a cure for Alzheimer's is really fifty years away, or longer. Is there a risk of a 'crying wolf' effect, where the promises of the research are so far that policy makers start becoming more skeptical ?

The reason I even bring this up is because I am reminded of a similar plight that overtook AI after its heyday in the 60s. Extreme amounts of hype, and the claim that soon computers could mimic humans, gave way to a serious backlash, and then finally a more nuanced understanding of the potential and limits of AI-related disciplines (fields like robotics/vision/learning appeared to flourish once they were not bound to the chains of "intelligence" and had more specific, local goals).

This may sound heretical, but sometimes working away from the limelight can be a lot better for a field; the real questions can be answered without having to worry about politics and controversy entering the picture (as in warming, global).

There is an element of blaming the victim here, I admit. After all, stem cell researchers would probably have been content to labor in obscurity if the issue hadn't been brought front and center by administration policy way back in 2001. Critics may complain that there is a serious ethical issue at stake here; I actually feel the ethical dilemma is more manufactured than real, hinging as it does on 'angels on the point of a pin'-like discussions about exactly when life starts.
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