L. Dennis Smith, president emeritus of the University of Nebraska and former UC Irvine acting chancellor from October 1992 to July 1993, delivered a speech on Nov. 17 entitled ‘Stem Cells: A Personal View of the Science, Promise and Politics.’
The speech, which was presented to a crowd consisting largely of UCI scientists, focused on Smith’s experiences dealing with public perception of stem-cell research in his home state of Nebraska.
‘I think I can grant at least my perspective of what’s happening in the field and some of the problems that I have encountered,’ Smith said. ‘They are problems that are beginning to surface across the country.’
According to Smith, the ideas of stem-cell research and cloning are invariably linked in the minds of the public and a discussion of the former cannot take place without addressing the latter.
The failure of early cloning experiments made the public ‘less inclined to worry about it,’ Smith said, but ‘a number of individuals, for a variety of reasons, succeeded in keeping this issue before the public eye.’
Particularly troublesome in tainting public perception of scientific advances were fiction books about cloning such as ‘In His Image: The Cloning of a Man’ by David M. Rorvik and ‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin and films such as ‘Jurassic Park’ by Michael Crichton, according to Smith.
‘These dramatic interludes caused an awful lot of people who knew nothing about cloning or how to do it to worry about this whole thing,’ Smith said.
Smith’s first major experience with the stem-cell controversy began on the morning of Nov. 28, 1999.
‘I was reading the newspaper [and] on the front page of the Omaha World Herald was a huge headline which said ‘[University of Nebraska] Uses Fetal Cells in Studies,’ Smith said. ‘Within 48 hours I received a letter from the governor of the state which said, in essence, that he found the research disturbing,’ Smith said.
When the governor requested that the research be halted, Smith refused, arguing that the research was medically necessary, that it had no effect on the number of voluntary abortions performed and that the aborted fetuses used were ‘destined for the trash can.’
Smith said that although the research was legal and had been approved by all appropriate committees and public bodies, communication with the public has been lacking.
‘We didn’t have a forum or an attempt to notify the public of the kinds of research going on,’ Smith said.
Smith said that science has flourished in America because of an unspoken contract between scientists and the public. This contract has given scientists large amounts of public funding and almost unlimited autonomy in exchange for providing state-of-the-art research.
Smith said that the autonomy that scientists have been afforded often arouses suspicion among the public. Consequently, it is time to devise a new contract, and failing to do so will be perilous to scientists.
‘I think the remarkable advancements in the biomedical sciences in particular have raised so many ethical and moral questions,’ Smith said.
He also added, ‘I would visualize far greater societal participation in the kind of research being done. … I don’t know if anyone will be completely happy with this approach. I don’t think, in the long run, it will limit any of the research we do, but I think that we have an obligation to at least let people know.’