Arlen Spector: Science Policy Driven by Evidence, not Rhetoric

Geoff Lomax is CIRM’s Senior Officer to the Standards Working Group

In August 2001, I was frantically working to put the final touches on my doctoral dissertation focused on ethical and policy considerations related to the use of genetic testing for disease risk. I always viewed the ethics policy discussion as rather nuanced and academic, so it was quite a surprise to hear President Bush state in his first prime time address that: Research on embryonic stem cells raises profound ethical questions. I knew nothing about the field of stem cell research at the time, but I decided to take notice given that research ethics had come to the forefront of the national policy discussion.

Sen. Arlen Spector

Sen. Arlen Spector

For an aspiring student of research policy, it was essential to follow how the discussion played out. I had experience in a number of state and national legislative campaigns and was keenly aware how rhetoric can trump substance in policy debates.

In 2001 -2002, the most substantive policy deliberations were taking place in the United States Senate. One senator in particular, Arlen Specter, stood out because of his cogent questioning designed to elicit answers to core policy questions. In a 2002 hearing Senator Specter focused on whether under the Bush policy there a sufficient number of stem cell lines available for the required research. It seem quite remarkable that so much attention was being given to whether particular cell lines were sufficiently robust for research on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. One of the most striking aspects of these deliberations was Senator Specter’s effort to move past rhetoric and get a complete picture of the policy issues.

This quality in Senator Spector extended to all his work, as the Los Angeles Times noted in their obituary of Spector after his death this week. They wrote, “he habitually asked probing questions of nominees from both parties instead of succumbing to the rhetorical approach favored by his colleagues.”

He brought this probing approach to NIH budget deliberations to document the value of disease treatment and prevention. The result was a doubling of the NIH budget over five years and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), described Specter to The Scientist as “a towering champion for biomedical research and the mission of the NIH.”

Former CIRM Governing Board chairman Robert Klein described Spector as a man of character and conviction. I hope one legacy of Senator Spector’s career is the conviction that issues of science and research policy should be informed by substantive deliberations. Science is fundamentally driven by rules of evidence, and science policy should be no exception.

Geoff Lomax

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