Paul Berg, a professor of cancer research and biochemistry at Stanford University, made it clear from the start of his lecture last night which side of the stem cell debate he supports.
“How could any administration with any conscience at all prohibit the possibility of saving lives just because the technology offends them?” he asked an audience of about 50 New Haven residents, professors, and students at the Slifka Center.
Berg’s lecture, titled “Biotechnology: Dealing with Public Concerns,” was part of a series of bioethics and public policy seminars that will be held throughout the academic year.
In explicating his opinion that the public is unwilling to accept many of the advances that are emerging in science, Berg provided two examples: DNA research and stem cell research. He displayed slides addressing the basic scientific processes of each and explained how he believed the research could be used to benefit patients.
He said in recent years scientists have feared the government may forbid certain lines of biomedical research altogether. Several bills have already passed through Congress and are sitting in the Senate that propose to make stem cell research a criminal offense.
“I am astonished that so many people are unaware that pending in our government is a law that says you will go to jail if you try to clone a stem cell,” Berg said. “Biotechnology and certain valuable lines of biomedical research are at increasing risk.”
In attacking the ethical dilemma of stem cell research, Berg drew a comparison to Dick Cheney’s reformed stance on gay marriage. He said as soon as someone has a close friend or relative suffering from a disease that could benefit from stem cell research, his previous ideology goes out the window.
“I have no problem with the political system providing for the oversight of the application of new knowledge, but what we’re seeing here is a big effort to prevent the acquisition of this knowledge altogether,” he said.
Students and professors alike said they were impressed and informed by Berg’s lecture. Arthur Galston, emeritus professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, introduced Berg and provided closing comments for the evening.
“I think that was a model combination of impeccable science and penetrating moral inquiry,” he said after the lecture.
Kate Williams ’08 said by the end of Berg’s talk, she had two wishes: “One, that all the classes I am taking were biology courses, and two, that everyone could hear Berg speak and be more informed about these issues because they are so important right now, especially in light of the upcoming elections.”
Berg could not agree more. He said this is not an issue only for stem-cell biologists but for anyone with any interest in science.
“Political power is being used to prevent research that there is broad consensus could be highly beneficial,” he said. “And thus science is being threatened.”
The next lecture in the series will be held Oct. 13.