Monday, January 23, 2006

They've come for evolution; who's standing?

Chris Mooney posted a link to Paul Nurse's editorial in Cell a few days ago, and there's been something hovering around the edge of my brain ever since, not quite fully expressing.

Today, I figured out what it was.

All in all, it's an interesting piece that I might recommend interesting. It's a discussion of current threats to biomedical research. The first half mostly concerns itself with funding problems: problems with the current boom-and-bust funding trends, suggestions of alternate ways to approach funding, and whatnot. It's very wonkish, so I thought it quite interesting, but there wasn't a lot of novelty there. The second half is also not necessarily new ground to me, but may be to others and is probably more intrinsically interesting. It discusses some of the political threats currently facing biomedical research in the US, and puts forward this passage (quoted by Mooney for the purposes of kudoing) that rather stands out:

Even senior leaders of US biomedical science seem to be rather nervous about taking a stand over the Creationism issue. When the NIH Director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, was asked by Science magazine whether he was personally concerned about the Intelligent Design movement taking off in schools, he said, “I am very concerned about it. And I don't think it's a good direction.” But in the same interview when asked why NIH had not been very visible in the debate over Intelligent Design, his response was “Why should it? Why do you think NIH should be visible in that debate?” One answer is that if human pathogens are being intelligently designed in response to the evolutionary pressures brought about by prolonged exposure to antibiotics, changes will be required in the current NIH strategies used to combat infectious diseases. Dr. Zerhouni has a difficult job spanning the political and scientific worlds, but it is crucial that great US scientific institutions like the NIH are unequivocal in their defense of science, especially over an issue that is as fundamental to biomedicine as Darwinism. This is a very important matter because the failure of the leadership to robustly support science will eventually be damaging for the whole scientific enterprise in the US.

I certainly agree with both Nurse and Mooney here, and find this a sentiment to be applauded. But there are other groups out there whose vulnerability to political pressure is either on par with the NIH--and others who are less so--that could be stepping forward on this issue.

One that comes to mind is major universities. Most big universities have big biomed research programs--that's where a lot of the basic research gets done--and many of these schools also have lobbying relationships with their state legislatures, or even closer relationships, for the state-sponsored schools. And we do, I admit, see a lot of work coming out of these universities to keep ID out of public schools. But from my admittedly limited perspectives it seems to be more out of the work of individual professors--or even biology programs--than it is on an institution-wide level.

But what struck me like lightning this morning was the realization that there are multimillion and billion dollar biotech companies out there, whose incomes are dependent on biomedical and genomic research, who need to rely on a steady supply of quality biological scientists who know what they're doing. Why aren't we seeing them step to the plate? Why isn't there a biotech lobbyists association working to keep ID out of state legislatures? Are the Celeras and the Medtronics of America making it clear to states interested in bringing biotech facilities to their states that they have no interest in hiring employees who've been trained in creationism? After all, it's in their own best interest.

This is just a random musing. It's possible that this is, in fact, already publically out there and I just haven't been paying close enough attention to notice. But it occurred to me that this was something I hadn't seen, so I thought I'd throw it out there. What do you all think?


At 29 January, 2006 15:29, Anonymous Plant Master Flash said...

One of the "categories" of organisation that seems to be providing the loudest voice on this is professional scientific societies. I only can speak for the plant end of the spectrum, of course, but the Botanical Society of America, American Society of Plant Biologists, and the Society for In Vitro Biology all have (or have had in the recent past) position statements on their websites. To get more policy-related, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the AAAS are also considering this an issue (although maybe not as big an issue as, say, the proliferation of nukes).

I do agree with you, though, that it seems odd the biotech companies haven't been more vocal on this count. One thing to consider, though, is that to conduct molecular biology in industry one is essentially acting as an engineer. There is no need to subscribe to a belief in evolution to get most biotech jobs done correctly. One can, in fact, even get advanced degrees in biology without taking any evolution coursework.

At 30 January, 2006 17:02, Blogger The Neurophile said...

Although everything in your second paragraph is true, there is still the simple fact that teaching creationism -> poorer bio programs.

There's a lot of reasons underlying this, even beyond the basic lacking an understanding of what you're working with. There's also the fact that the organizations (such as DI) pushing for ID & Creationism are also vocally opposed to the very idea of methodological naturalism. And I really wouldn't want an engineer working under me who honestly believed that research to support what we're doing wasn't necessary because we could just make shit up instead.

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