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Bioethicist calls for change in political discourse over science

Jonathan D. Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke as part of the Class of 1961 Lecture Series.

The United States would benefit if political discourse over science was reframed in a way that accounts for America’s long history of encouraging innovation, Jonathan D. Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told a Lehigh audience recently.

“[The founders] believed deeply in what we today call science and technology, and they clearly thought that the new nation was going to be partly founded on bringing the most imaginative, creative people here. This was part of the future of the country,” said Moreno, who was a senior staff member of a special commission during President Bill Clinton’s administration and currently serves as a member of President Barack Obama’s advisory committee on bioethics.

Moreno, who spoke in early April as part of the Lehigh Class of 1961 Ethics Series, noted that many of the founders, including Benjamin Franklin and former President Thomas Jefferson, were enterprising thinkers in their day. Jefferson reviewed patents and was a reputable inventor, and Franklin, of course, is known for his experiments with electricity.

Moreno’s lecture shared the title of his latest book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, which was named a Best Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews. His talk, delivered in the STEPS building auditorium, focused squarely on the tension that exists in American political circles regarding science and discussed potential solutions to some of the problems the nation faces when it comes to scientific advances.

'Not a traditional American problem'

In recent years, Moreno said, American views on science have shifted. He cited a 2010 survey from the National Science Foundation that found that although 68 percent of Americans view scientific advancement as a good thing, 48 percent say that science moves too fast. And according to Moreno, there is a growing level of distrust in science in America, primarily as a result of issues in the life sciences—genetics, immunology, evolutionary science, and the like.

“This is not a traditional American problem; this is a problem that has arisen in the last 30 or 40 years because the life sciences have become so prominent,” Moreno said. “It’s the nature of the issues that are raised by life sciences that people on the left as well as the right find threatening.”

Moreno also cited research that indicates conservative Americans’ trust in science has rapidly decreased, which he attributes to the fact that many fields are transitioning into new territory.

Said Moreno: “Over roughly 150 years or so, biology’s increasingly [becoming] an experimental field—manipulating variables, changing nature.”

In order to shift opinions, he suggests that discourse should focus on advancements that can galvanize the nation’s sensibilities regarding discovery—a voyage to Mars, for instance. He also said that the government should look closely at policies that restrict scientific research.

“The richest person I ever spoke to was the founder of a company I won’t mention; he’s worth $3-S4 billion, and he did not talk about regulation as his biggest worry. His biggest worry was visas,” said Moreno. “He said, ‘We have got to make sure that we are letting more people into the country, on a long-term basis, who are well trained in science and technology.’ This is a part of our history.”

Story by Karl Brisseaux '11

Posted on Monday, April 09, 2012

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