• April 16, 2014

Nobel Laureate in Medicine Wins Acclaim Despite Past Political Skirmishes

For one of today's winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, the news isn't her first exposure to widespread public attention.

Back in 2004, during the Bush administration, Ms. Blackburn was one of two scientists dismissed from the President's Council on Bioethics, after they dissented from the panel by arguing that the federal government should not bar scientists from creating cloned embryos as a source of stem cells for medical research.

Today, along with two other American researchers—Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University, and Jack W. Szostak of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital—she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery, in the 1980s, of how chromosomes are duplicated during cell division and how telomeres—the caps at the ends of chromosome strands—prevent the copying from being degraded.

After her appointment to the President's Council on Bioethics, and her subsequent removal, Ms. Blackburn co-authored articles in PLoS Biology and The New England Journal of Medicine accusing the council of deliberately misrepresenting the nature of research on human aging and stem cells.

Even those who questioned her political stance in 2004, however, say there's no reason to doubt her scientific accomplishment. John H. Evans, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego who writes about the relationship between science and society, said Ms. Blackburn's experience with the council merely made her an example of the much wider dispute between the Bush administration and the defenders of "institutional science."

The Bush administration was not repressing science, as Ms. Blackburn suggested in her New England Journal of Medicine article, Mr. Evans said, but merely suggesting that exploration could have limits based on political values. And either way, he said, she no doubt deserves the Nobel.

Last year she was one of the first women to win the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the largest award in American medicine.

William B. Hurlbut, a bioethicist and physician at the Stanford University School of Medicine who also served on the bioethics council in the Bush administration and supports limits on stem-cell research, said he agreed. "I'm inclined to think she is deserving of this honor based on the merit of her science," Dr. Hurlbut said. —Paul Basken


1. princeton67 - October 05, 2009 at 06:03 pm

"said Ms. Blackburn's experience with the council merely made her an example of the much wider dispute between the Bush administration and the defenders of 'institutional science'....Mr. Evans said, but merely suggesting that exploration could have limits based on political values".

A brilliant undermining of science by labelling it "institutional".
Would that be the science that constantly challenges and refines, but accepts evolution, whereas our erstwhile President said that to teach creationism is to teach "both sides of the dispute (about human origins)"?
Would scientific research having "limits based on political values" refer to Galileo's experiences with the policies of the Roman Catholic Church? Or to the forty year reign of Lysenkoism in the USSR?

2. skocpol - October 05, 2009 at 06:07 pm

Despite(?)Past Political Skirmishes??? Since when has the Bush administration's intellectually narrow perspective earned the respect of the international scientific community? On the other hand, I doubt that it was "because of" politics either. These awardees have all done outstanding work on an important issue. Let's just leave politics out of it, for once.

3. bmljenny - October 05, 2009 at 08:18 pm

Anyone who runs afoul of Bush's policy on sciences is A-OK in my books.

4. 11201784 - October 06, 2009 at 09:35 am

bmljenny and the other commentators are right. "Institutional" science as opposed to what? And "exploration could have limits based on political values"? What does that mean exactly? Whose political "values"?

5. willynilly - October 06, 2009 at 09:55 am

Unfortunately, in my opinion, anyone who was associated with Bush and his administration, including their achievements prior to or post the Bush experience is badly tainted. As I say this, I equally admit that I am a Conservative Republican - but one who puts America ahead of any corrupt administration. The Bush Administration Republican that I admire most is Christy Whitman, a Cabinet member, who ran, full speed ahead, away from Bush and his crooked cronies, at her first whiff of corruption. She made a very hasty departure, walking away upon her own moral initiative. In Ms. Blackburn's case she had "to be removed", ergo actually signaling her willingness to remain in a position that discredited Science, rather than defending the field and walking away in dignity as Whitman did. For this breach of loyalty to the field, I hold her current achievement forever tainted.

6. 11178276 - October 06, 2009 at 09:56 am

Indeed, Mr. Evans' comment is a good example of what's wrong with the field of sociology today.

7. mhick255 - October 06, 2009 at 11:03 am

So scientific research should have no limits whatsoever? Would you say that the Tuskegee syphilis experiments were a good use of tax dollars because the scientists didn't let "political values" get in the way of their research? They cannily kept the civil rights revolution from messing up their data.

Yes, I know that's an unfair question, but no science takes place in a moral or political vacuum. "Political values" constantly shape what research gets funded and what research gets outlawed.

8. banished - October 06, 2009 at 01:37 pm

I find the whole premise of the article absurd. Dr. Blackburn took a stance against the administration's political intrusion into what should have been an objective process. What does this have anything to do with her scientific contribution recongnized by the awarding of the Nobel prize? Why would I need a sociologist to tell me that she did deserve a Nobel prize after all despite her political/moral/ethical stance? Did we really need this bit of nonsense on CHE? What the hell is "institutional science" anyway? As opposed to what?

9. nancypiper - October 06, 2009 at 07:28 pm

I think you could comment on the newest Nobel Prize winners in Physics, and those in the past who had pro-life values! Like the guy who won for inventing the laser. gov. role is to be limited and private funds can pay for these amazing discoveries.
~~ A lover of all treasures God places in their Mama's wombs!

10. jsch0602 - October 06, 2009 at 08:36 pm

As we have learned from history, those involved in political skirmishes rarely win awards. Al Gore, for example, has never won a prize for anything.

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