A Witness to Science History

Janet Rowley, M.D. Janet Rowley, M.D.

By Jeremy Manier

This was a long but exhilarating day for Janet Rowley, who was at President Obama’s side as he signed the executive order creating a new stem-cell policy. I caught up with her by phone in D.C. this afternoon as she waited for her plane back to Chicago. Rowley said the day’s events made her think back to the first meeting of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, where her views in favor of embryonic stem cell research put her at odds with the administration.

“To be there today at the White House and see this signing, for me it was like coming full circle,” Rowley said. “When you saw the enthusiasm of the scientists who were there, the people from Congress, the patient advocates who were so important in keeping this issue alive during the dark years, if you will. It was just an unbelievable experience.”

For Rowley and other researchers, one of the most welcome themes of the day was what Rowley called “the de-linking of science and politics.” In fact, despite the historic nature of the stem-cell policy change, the other document Obama signed may have more far-reaching effects – a presidential memorandum on scientific integrity. That directive calls for more transparency in science and technology issues before the government, without suppression of findings for political reasons.

Although the Bush administration is over, the Council on Bioethics is slated to last until at least November of this year, and Rowley continues to serve on it. She said she believes some of the group’s reports have made an impact, if only to reflect how divided the country was on many issues in bioethics. Such groups can continue to address legitimate moral concerns; as Rowley said, “It’s very important because scientists have to reassure the rest of the country that we’re not out to make a bunch of clones or zombies.”

Another note: Friday’s analysis of the next steps for the NIH is up at the Huffington Post’s Chicago site; you can see it here.

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