Stem Cells and Cloning in the Public Eye

From golden rice to global warming, science makes headlines these days like never before. Not since Dolly the sheep made her debut five years ago did a scientific issue command as much attention as did cloning and stem cells during the week of Aug. 6. As soon as the White House announced on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 9, that President George W. Bush would make a nationally televised speech that evening regarding federal funding of stem cell research, newspapers, TV, and the Internet courted the s

Sep 3, 2001
Barry Palevitz
From golden rice to global warming, science makes headlines these days like never before. Not since Dolly the sheep made her debut five years ago did a scientific issue command as much attention as did cloning and stem cells during the week of Aug. 6.

As soon as the White House announced on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 9, that President George W. Bush would make a nationally televised speech that evening regarding federal funding of stem cell research, newspapers, TV, and the Internet courted the story, complete with voyeuristic views of eggs pricked with a new set of genetic instructions. Along with the latest news, we were also stuffed with the usual pontifications from preening pundits and science wonk wannabees. Nobody was sheepish about expressing opinions, no matter how "unseminal."

Bush's decision to narrowly support stem cell research also pushed a related event off page one. Gathered earlier in the week at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, an army of physicians, researchers, and ethicists tackled the propriety and feasibility of human cloning for therapeutic and reproductive purposes.

With all the coverage, cloning and stem cells probably fertilized conversation over many a morning coffee and happy hour drink. Still, at least some of the coverage in the mainstream media left people limp by NOT fully informing them. Following Bush's announcement, CBS's Dan Rather told viewers, "Obviously, this is a very complicated subject. It's the kind of subject that, frankly, radio and television have some difficulty with because it requires such in depth [sic] into the complexities of it. So we can with, I think, impunity recommend that if you're really interested in this, you'll want to read in detail one of the better newspapers tomorrow."

Some of Rather's colleagues probably weren't too happy with his comments, judging from the attention they attracted in the press. The comments also surprised people at C-SPAN, which specializes in public affairs programming on cable TV. For those hoping to get past the fluff to the marrow of the matter, C-SPAN and its companion outlets C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3, provided the meat by airing almost seven hours of the National Academy of Sciences meeting. Together with rebroadcasts, C-SPAN kept NAS in the spotlight for more than 17 hours.

And that wasn't all: C-SPAN coordinator of media relations Shelly Siders estimates that Bush's speech and other commentary added another 15 hours to the networks' lineup, not counting rebroadcasts. Why did they do it? Says Siders, "C-SPAN is a public affairs network, and if the issue is on the presidential and congressional agenda it is naturally going to be on our network."

Besides informing the public about the latest in human reproduction and tissue replacement, C-SPAN also gave viewers a peek at the way scientists communicate with each other. With the utterance of "next slide please" many times over, the NAS hearing sounded like an academic seminar. Aunt Em and Uncle Joe heard about blastocysts, PCR, and genetic imprinting straight from the horses' mouths. And not having talking heads constantly interpreting what was said came as a breath of fresh air. Much of the discussion may have been impenetrably arcane to more than a few people, but by surfing what was said and not worrying about details, they could at least get a feel for the issue and the nature of the technology.

Viewers also saw firsthand how scientists disagree, sometimes heatedly so. To a public that may not fully appreciate scientific inquiry and the meaning of debate--be it about evolution or the number of stem cell lines researchers really need--that could be a valuable lesson.

Barry A. Palevitz (palevitz@dogwood.botany.uga.edu)
is a contributing editor for The Scientist.