Legislators hold the power to make a day in the lab a felony, and most people hope that these senators at least know what they are talking about. "I don't expect Congress to understand everything, but we want their decision to be based on facts," says Michael West, president and chief executive officer of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), the Worcester, Mass.-based biotechnology firm that first cloned a human embryo last year.1
Scientists are demonstrating the promise of therapeutic cloning mostly in the literature,2 but the news media have publicized provocative claims, such as a woman who eight weeks' pregnant with a cloned human.3 Cognizant of the technical, precise, and sometimes inflammatory nature of these issues, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Congressional Research Service, and others are working to provide unbiased information for decision makers in the form of reports and testimonies. "There isn't a lack of knowledge," assures Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Committee on Science. A similarly unilateral ban has already passed in the House, but those who would count hands in the Senate say that the decision is up in the air. Legislators have their own ways of interpreting the circus of information, however, and many will leave the tent with the same opinions they brought in.
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Senators have access to the information, but many are going to colleagues both on and off Capitol Hill. "They aren't coming to me," quips Irving Weissman, who chaired the NAS panel on cloning. Weissman, the Karel and Avice Beekhuis Professor of Cancer Biology, Stanford University, says, "I think most are going to [Sen. William] Frist." Frist (R-Tenn.) a physician and former director of the Vanderbilt University Transplant Center, is also a right-to-life advocate, who ardently opposes stem cell research.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) consulted a pediatrician and a cancer researcher at the University of Utah before surprising fellow pro-lifers with a pro stance toward stem cell research.5 The increased level of detail legislators invariably have to sort through has led many to add scientists to their staffs. "Twenty years ago, you'd have a Jack or Jane of all trades. Now, you'll find a PhD on staff," says Boehlert. A PhD can be a staff member, or can come through one of the many congressional fellowship programs that place scientists as aides to congressmen or committees for one year. Some of them never leave.
Diana Zuckerman, a former Congressional Science Fellow for the American Psychological Society and now president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families, says, "I spent a dozen years bridging the gap between science and policy often as the only one in the room who knew what a p-value was." Aviva Brecher, who served as an American Physical Society Congressional Fellow in the mid-1980s, is now a technical expert at Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass. Brecher says that the best tactics for disseminating information included having scientific societies sponsor breakfast briefings addressed by science experts, or leaking anonymous tips to the media and then reading the resulting articles into the Congressional record.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), one of two physicists in Congress, says he believes a well-informed scientist pales in comparison to a well-established bipartisan office. "It's dangerous when you have members of Congress speaking to individual scientists," he says. "The last person they speak to may be accepted as the consent of science." Holt is sponsoring a bill for the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the defunct bipartisan board funded by Congress to provide legislators informative, unbiased reports on scientific and technical topics.5
But even if Holt's legislation to reinstate the OTA passed, it would be too late to better inform the cloning issue. Regardless, others feel that no amount of scientifically balanced advice would change the minds of those locked into their ideologies. "Insofar as their reason is their own personal morality or conscience, who can disagree with that?" asks Weissman.
1 J.B. Cibell et al., "Somatic cell nuclear transfer in humans: pronuclear and early embryonic development," Journal of Regenerative Medicine, 2:25-31, 2001.
2. W.M. Rideout et al., "Correction of a genetic defect by nuclear transplantation and combined cell and gene therapy," Cell, 109:17-27, April 5, 2002.
3. A. Coghlan, "Grave expectations," New Scientist, 174:4, April 13, 2002.
4. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Scientific and Medical Aspects of Human Reproductive Cloning, N. Grossblatt, ed., Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002.
5. T. Agres, "Informing Congress: A return of the OTA?" The Scientist, 15:8, Oct. 1, 2001.