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War Against the Weak – The Documentary

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 27th, 2009

Edwin Black’s award-winning book on the history and modern implications of the American Eugenics Movement is about to hit the silver screen. War Against the Weak the movie had its World Premiere over the weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The book offers a chilling and remarkably accessible look at the American eugenics movement by examining its origins and the cultural, political, and institutional practices that fostered its popularity in the early to mid 20th century. The filmmakers offer the following synopsis:

In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy, combined with the efforts of the scientific, academic and political elite, created the pseudoscience eugenics, and institutionalized race politics as national policy. The goal was to create a superior, white, Nordic race and obliterate virtually everyone else.

Under the Nazis, American eugenic principles were applied without restraint, careening out of control into the Reich's infamous genocide. American eugenicists openly supported Germany's program, with both financial and intellectual capital. Once WWII began, Nazi eugenics turned from mass sterilization and euthanasia to genocidal murder. War Against the Weak explores this complex relationship between American eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust.

While this documentary exploration of the history of eugenics is incredibly important and should make a profound contribution in educating the public, one can only hope that the filmmakers do not minimize one of the strongest points made by Black in his book: that many of the concerns raised by past attempts to breed better humans may be presenting themselves today through developments in reproductive and genetic technologies.  Too often we lose this context.

Always falling behind

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 23rd, 2009

We regularly hear - particularly during election years - that not only is stem cell research essential to the economy of the future, but that America is falling behind due to former President Bush's funding restriction (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). But a new report concludes that the US still has the edge.

US institutes have become the dominant force in stem-cell research.... This they have achieved by creating significant critical mass by forming consortia of existing university and hospital departments without the need for time-consuming recruitment.

Of course, while this fact is likely true, this report must be taken with the same grain of salt as previous ones. After all, it was commissioned by one of the UK's leading stem cell research consortia, performed by a consulting group with heavy links to members of that consortium, and leaked to the Times Higher Education magazine, which used the headline "UK's reputation as world leader in stem-cell research challenged."

This is becoming something of a pattern: Advocates and researchers on each side of the pond attributing the potential loss of biotech (and thus economic) supremacy to some policy they dislike. In the UK, scientists recently argued that any limit on using stem cell techniques to create animal-human hybrids would be a severe blow to British science. (The practice that was approved after much political turmoil; then when particular projects were rejected for funding on scientific grounds, scientists resumed their dire warnings.) 

Here in the US, scientists have rightly criticized the Bush restriction on federal funding of stem cell research. When President Obama lifts this, will a new policy bogeyman be named?

Parents might know what's best for their children, but do scientists?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 23rd, 2009

Deborah Linebarger has involved her children, including Beckett, left, Sophie, right, and Alec, at rear, in her psychology research. (Ryan Collerd for The New York Times)

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran on article on the trend for researchers to use their own children as test subjects. Most of the examples cited were innocuous enough, typically limited to observation without significant intervention. Obviously, no scientist-parent would knowingly harm their own child. Fortunately, the piece acknowledged the sometimes-unseen risks posed by this dual relationship:

Some research methods are clearly benign; others, while not obviously dangerous, might not have fully understood effects. Ethicists said they would consider participation in some projects acceptable, even valuable, but raised questions about the effect on the child, on the relationship with the parent, and on the objectivity of the researcher or the data.

“The role of the parent is to protect the child,” said Robert M. Nelson, director of the Center for Research Integrity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parent-child relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.”

Researchers themselves acknowledge the challenge of being simultaneously scientist and parent.

“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, like I’m invading their privacy,” said Dr. Linebarger, who ultimately set some boundaries. “When you mix being a researcher with being a parent, it can put your kids in an unfair place.”
While any use of human subjects must get approval from an Institutional Review Board, some researchers are not disclosing the participation of their children to the IRB:
Some scientists said that in studies with multiple subjects they considered it unnecessary to report their child’s participation, because they would face no greater risk than others. Some asserted that involving their children proved risks were minimal....

“I sign my own permission slips,” said Gedeon Deak, whose three sons have participated in his cognitive science studies at University of California, San Diego. He tells review boards his subjects are a “sample of convenience,” not randomly selected, but he has seen no need to specify that his sons are among the participants.
The scientists' confidence that they have the necessary skills and wisdom to decide what the IRB should know is the real danger, a situation that likely occurs more often than acknowledged.

Stem Cells in the Time of Fiscal Difficulties

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 22nd, 2009

Jensen blogs from his sailboat on the coast of Mexico.

David Jensen, blogger at the essential California Stem Cell Report, challenges the state's lavish subsidies for stem cell research in a time of major budget cutbacks:

As California's public universities are turning away students and state cash is being cut for projects ranging from research labs to affordable housing, the California stem cell agency is on track to give away $66 million later this month....

The disparity raises major public policy issues about the use of ballot initiatives to promote and protect various causes. Should the elderly and poor see their much-needed assistance and medical care cut while cash flows unimpeded, in this case, to researchers, some of whom are already exceedingly well funded?...

If California cannot get its financial act together in the next month or two, it will face problems of a magnitude that will dwarf such concerns as stem cell research.

I would add only that the recipient of the largest share of the recent facilities grants, and I believe the greatest overall grant recipient, is Stanford University, which is a private institution with the nation's third-largest endowment, recently reported at $17 billion.

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