Embryonic stem cell research

I don’t like the idea of government funding of embryonic stem cell research, but not for the reason you might assume.  I don’t like the funding of any directed research. Researchers are human, they have families to feed and house – a pool of grant money for a particular line of research tends to pull them toward that line.

For years it has been said over and over “If we  can put men on the moon we can xxxxx”, even by President Obama in the last couple of months. But the fallacy in that is that the basic science was done a few hundred years ago by Isaac Newton, the flood of money that got us to the moon in ten years went into the engineering and materials research, we already knew the theory of force, mass and trajectories (with a bow to Einstein, but at the speeds involved relativity was a small component).

I remember meeting a gentleman in the late sixties at a party in Tuxedo Park (ironically, as there was a branch of the Manhattan Project there). He was the brother-in-law of a friend of mine and in medical research, not a  medical doctor but a biological scientist. He had a theory of approaching cancer cures from an immunological standpoint. It came up as in our conversation he discovered that my father was in medical research at the Rockefeller Institute (now University). His approach wasn’t in the currently popular view, he couldn’t get a grant and wondered if my father could help (which he couldn’t as he was an adjunct “guest investigator” in semi-retirement).

My point on that is that his line of research was ignored, yet years later we have seen that line (immunology, the attempt to get the body to reject the cancerous cells) has been revived. Grants go to those who those whose applications fit the latest, the  “au currant”, trend in “political science”.  Basic discoveries seldom come from directed research.

Another example, which I’m close to. The transistor (without which I wouldn’t be posting this on my blog). My father, at the time a researcher in solid state physics at Bell Labs, came up with a thought as to some possibilities at the P/N junction in doped crystals – and sent an internal memo about it. As a “side bar” may I say that Bell Labs at the time didn’t direct the research to a particular problem (as the Watson Labs of IBM in the ’60s and ’70s didn’t), they set the scientists loose to follow their head. Six months later Bardeen and his assistant (with their boss, Schockley’s name in front) published the paper on the use of crystal as a “valve” (the English term for a diode) and had invented the transistor. They weren’t looking to do that, they tryed the suggested effect. My father was working with quartz which was too stable, they were playing with the characteristics of germanium.

This isn’t a complaint, my father didn’t invent the transistor – Bardeen did (I knew Shockley, a regular visitor at our house – a manager rather than a scientist). It is meant to make the point that most basic discoveries come from general basic research rather than directed research. When a theory of a causality becomes an obsession we lose the basic research into the characteristics of the cells (in this case), or of nature in general.

Just for fun may I add that my father did some directed work during WWII for the Navy on electrical discharges – the advent of spark vs. arc.  It was meant to study lightning strikes on military aircraft. Many years later I was involved with a firm designing real time computer controls for electrostatic precipitators for Research Cottrell (the originals weren’t to clean the air from the stacks, they were to recover precious metals from the smelting process). The criterion we were given was to control the voltage on the plates by allowing sparks but shutting it back on arcs (the process they had used for years). At dinner with my father (now long retired) we discussed it. The upshot was that he got a $2000 honorarium for a lecture on the topic, the spark doesn’t always precede an arcing – came from his Navy research forty years before. Research Cottrell’s engineers listened, as did my fellow consultants. We suggested changing the criteria to better achieve the “green” purpose of cleaning the stacks, they cancelled our contract and went with what they had.

I will gratutitously add that the same applies to “global warming”, a theory by one man(James Hansen) has directed funding into proving his point. Statistics are interpreted to fit the thesis, facts ignored if they don’t fit. Government or foundation funding to study a particular approach, or particular theory, distorts the general research into the basics.

I would be happy to see government or foundation funding of research into the characteristics of stem cells – all stem cells, including those of mice and men. Without the base understanding the engineering is a waste of time and money – and the waste of time is the worse as it may delay the understanding, and therefore any possible solutions.

Jon Murphy