For Next President, An Array Of Science Challenges According to a report issued by the Center for the Study of the President, the incoming president will need to confront a host of policy issues related to science and technology — including climate change, food and water scarcity, energy shortages and weapons of mass destruction.
NPR logo

For Next President, An Array Of Science Challenges

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For Next President, An Array Of Science Challenges

For Next President, An Array Of Science Challenges

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For the rest of the hour, what does the incoming President and in that case, let's throw in the incoming Congress, because all of Congress - lots of senators are up for reelection, what do they need to think about when it comes to science and technology, and how can we make sure that the President has good people to help him think about that?

While the economy and the war are certainly at the front of many people's minds this election season, issues like energy policy, health care, stem-cell research, sit at the intersection of science and policy, and joining me now to help us consider some of those issues is Tom Murray.

He's the president and CEO of The Hastings Center. That's a nonpartisan bioethics research institution in Garrison, New York. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. TOM MURRAY (President and CEO, The Hastings Center): Hello, Ira. It's good to be speaking to you after so long.

FLATOW: Been a while. Before we begin on - talking about what the president needs, it's hard to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Mr. MURRAY: Indeed.

FLATOW: And that is the economy and where it's heading, and just - I know you're not an economist specializing in this kind of question, but we must take into account, though, we - the fact that there may not be money for lots of these things.

Mr. MURRAY: I've been thinking about that continuously. The - so, I think what got you to call me in the first place was this report from the Center for the Study of the Presidency, the panel in which I sat that was ran by Anne Soliman and Richard Meserve, the President of the Carnegie Institution.

And you can roughly think about the report's recommendations in two classes, policy for science and science for policy. So (unintelligible) in the first now, policy for science, how are we going to pay for the kinds of research that we think is important, and how are we going to pay for the publicly-funded research through agencies like the National Institute of Health that will sort of be the font of innovation for biomedicine and health care. It's really a terrible quandary right now.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Tom Murray. OK, let's get into some of these questions about science and policy, and policy of science. What do you see are some of the great issues that we'll be facing in the next administration and the next Congress?

Mr. MURRAY: Well, if we want to pivot to the issues that we deal with at the Hastings Center, basically bioethics, ethics, science and medicine. That's a long list. But let's mention a few things. Let me begin by asking why bioethics is important in the first place.

My friend Nancy Gibbs from Time Magazine was visiting at the center some time ago, and you know her question was, why should anybody be interested in bioethics? I said, well, you should only be interested in it if you care about what happens at the beginning of life, at the end of life, and at many, many points along the way.

So, if you'd follow me that far, then you realize that bioethics issues are particularly difficult ones politically, because they - all of them vary along two dimensions. They vary along sort of the standard, political dimension of interest - they're conflicting interests.

Physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and families all have interest in the shape of health-care reform, because it will affect how much money they make, how much money they have to spend. Parents of children with juvenile diabetes care a great deal about what happens in stem-cell-research policy.

The people who run infertility clinics, which tend to be pretty good profit centers, are very concerned about trying to fend off regulation of assistive reproductive technologies. Folks who are worried about organ shortages, some of them will advocate for markets for organs. Well, of course, market solutions may be a little less popular today than they were a few months ago.

And there are areas like synthetic biology, which is an emerging technology that we've recently began working with and studying at the Hastings Center. So the scientists there are saying, you know, self-regulation is fine.

We don't need any help. So the interest dimension is a pretty common one. But we have a second dimension when you begin talking about bioethics, and that's the dimension of meanings and values. The shape of our health-care system is really also a judgment about what kind of people we are and what we owe one another.

Stem-cell policy particularly - well specifically, when you're talking about the creation or use of embryos to make stem cells means a great deal to many people, the fate of those embryos.

Same about infertility clinics. The fact that they're - we don't know the exact number of frozen embryos in the U.S. right now; but as of five years ago, we were able to track almost 400,000. The numbers are almost certainly much larger than that right now.

FLATOW: Let me just jump in, and say this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. Go ahead, Tom.

Mr. MURRAY: Well, that's good. I didn't mean for this to be a monologue. I apologize.

FLATOW: I'll jump in there when it's necessary.

Mr. MURRAY: All right. I'll just mention the last two again, the idea of trying to increase the supply of organs by providing financial incentives for families to donate organs, or by providing markets for living organ donors like kidney donors. By the way, I almost - I trap myself there. If you sell something, you're not a donor - you're a vendor.

FLATOW: You're a vendor.

Mr. MURRAY: Right.

FLATOW: Interesting. Are these issues going to be framed politically and, I guess, socially by whomever becomes President, having a different view from the other person?

Mr. MURRAY: Very much so. And the two candidates on many of these have quite different positions. We did a quick track. If anybody wants to go to the Hastings Center's website and there's a link to it from your website, we are able to find more than 40 bills on bioethics issues in the current Congress.

Now those that haven't been passed will just have to get back in the queue in the next Congress, so this will all restart again in January. We found seven on just cloning and stem-cell research alone.

FLATOW: So this election, even though everybody - it's focused on economy at this point, will very much have other co-tales(ph) to it?

Mr. MURRAY: Surely, yeah. The biggest - the one that's received public attention in bioethics has been of course health-care reform.

FLATOW: Yeah. And of course a lot of people have talked about embryonic stem-cell research as you mentioned.

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah. But that hasn't made the debates, at least not far (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Very little science has made the debates.

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah.

FLATOW: Have you noticed that?

Mr. MURRAY: I have, and I've been sorry to see that.

FLATOW: And if ethics issues are just about you know ethics, and science just doesn't exist in any of the debates that have been going on lately. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a call in or two to folks who are eager to talk to us about it. Let's go to Eric in Auburn, New York. Hi, Eric.

ERIC (Caller): Hi! I have a comment about how we can use this economic difficulty to motivate Congress to do things that we might like to see done. I think it would be very difficult to move Congress to do a jobs program and switch us from the fossil to renewable energy economy, but this would start all kinds of industry and good jobs production and get the economy going.

We've got infrastructure that needs to be replaced. We should have high-speed internet right to our homes. We should be funding some of the new industry in biotech and other research-related, science-related issues, and I think the listeners here can do a lot simply by calling their Congress people and encouraging this. It's certainly what I did when they were talking about bailout.

Mr. MURRAY: That's probably been the most important comment about science policy that at least I heard from the various campaigns, and that's been Senator Obama's proposal to sort of rebuild an American industrial economy on green technologies.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, and come back and talk lots more with Tom Murray and take your questions. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Talking about science, public policy and issues like that in the next administration.

Well, we still have science openness and freedom issues to talk about, all the other kinds of issues that you'd like to talk about. As I said, 1-800-989-8255. If you're in Second Life, find us in Science Friday Island. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with Tom Murray, president and CEO of The Hastings Center. That's a bioethics research institution in Garrison, New York.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Tom, let's talk a bit about some of the other big issues facing the presidency, and one that really, I think, has a bioethics edge to it that doesn't get talked very much about, is some of these emerging technologies like nanotechnology.

You know, the jury is still out on the total health effects - the possible health effects of all these tiny nanoparticles that are floating around.

Mr. MURRAY: Indeed. I have a bicycle with me here on Cape Cod right now. It's made with carbon fiber, and I love the bike, but we'd like to know a lot more about the potential health effects of the carbon fiber when it's being manufactured, and when it degrades and enters the waste stream.

FLATOW: And when you saw into it, you customized your bike.

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah.

FLATOW: And you create the bike - that dust.

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah. I'm sure. We've been looking at nanotechnology at the center. More recently, as I mentioned, we've been looking at synthetic biology. Have you spoken about that on Science Friday?

FLATOW: Sure. But go ahead.

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah. Well, synthetic biology is very interesting because it invokes all these questions about the benefits which are somewhat easier to imagine, but risks which can be you know very difficult to really get one, to get your arms around.

FLATOW: Such as.

Mr. MURRAY: Well, you don't really know how these complex new biological organisms are going to behave. Biological systems are inherently complex and unpredictable, and you don't know what will happen if any of them are released into the general environment.

Now, the people who are developing them have pretty good, you know, reasonable answers right now. They'll say - well, we'll make them so they're so fragile that they'll be essentially hothouse flowers, and they wouldn't survive outside of the laboratory or industrial setting. And that's possible.

But life does tend to find a way, so we'd want to look at that - look at those problems. But the other thing about synthetic biology that's less talked about instead of issues that we're particularly interested in, is it's meaning for our relationship both with ourselves, if we'd begun to use synthetic biology to remake our bodies, and our physiology, and the relationship with nature.

These are very tough things to try to articulate, and they're extremely difficult for policy makers to understand how to think about, and how to bring into their judgment on their shaping policy. But we think these are issues that absolutely need to be addressed and we're going to do that soon.

FLATOW: And where do they get their advice on thinking about these things?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: That's a good question. Goodness. We - I - that's an empirical question...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: I don't know the whole answer too, Ira. To be perfectly honest, I can tell you…

FLATOW: The fact that no one knows answers the question itself.

Mr. MURRAY: Well, I'll tell you a couple of quick stories. Years ago - it must have been about seven years ago - when the new Congress - so it would have been actually 2001, I think, when the new Congress was getting together, and the people were still civil enough to one another that they were able to hold a bipartisan congressional retreat, and I was invited to be one of the experts.

They didn't have a lot of - maybe they had a dozen people from outside of the Congress people, their families and their senior staff. And I was running a couple of workshops on basically genetics and genetic engineering, biotechnology and the like and ethical issues thereof.

And after one of the workshops, one of our reluctant representatives came up to me and said, can you explain to me what the difference is between a genetically engineered organism and the stuff - and hybrids?

And I was able to - but it was a good thing that he was able to ask that question. But the fact that he's on a committee that has jurisdiction over this, and nobody had ever explained that to him was a little frightening.

The setting, because it was private, no reporters there, enabled him to ask an embarrassing question that he otherwise might have, you know, never asked. We need more settings like that. We need more opportunities for policy makers to get valid information, and not look like fools while they're doing it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Mark in Saint Paul. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Well, to the answer of advisory, you can also go back to the 1980s. I remember when I was in the service, I remember hearing and reading about where Reagan dissolved or disbanded a science advisory council to Congress, saying that Congress can get the proper information from lobbyists.

So there was something that was out there. It's non-partisan and everything, but Reagan said we cannot rely on the lobbyist.

Mr. MURRAY: What? You don't think they can get adequate information from lobbyist. Is that what you are saying?

MARK: Well, considering lobbyist work for industries that want Congress to vote certain ways, probably not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: I totally - I am with you a 100 percent. I should note that, in the Center for the Study of the Presidency report, the second recommendation includes a recommendation to create a congressional office of science-and-technology policy. I suspect the body you're talking about was the old Office of Technology Assessment.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's what it was then.

MARK: There is one thing, a little comment, one person was making about complexity of biology. Something most people don't realize - we understand the space shuttle far better than we understand the basic complexities of a single-celled organism. The chemistry that goes on there weigh - outweighs or is more complex than most of the spatial workings.

Mr. MURRAY: That's an excellent analogy. Thanks for that.

FLATOW: Thanks, Mark.

Mr. MURRAY: It underscores, you know, our interests and concerns about synthetic biology.

FLATOW: You can also apply that to we know more about the back side of the moon, than we know about the deep oceans.

Mr. MURRAY: Yes.

FLATOW: So, there's a lot of work to be done and, you know, as you said - as we started saying, Lord knows, where the money is going to come from. There is even a talk about even a space program cutting back possible future exploratory missions to Mars and other places, because money is tight.

Mr. MURRAY: If you look at the platforms of the parties in the presidential and the policies proposed by the presidential campaigns. There is not much explicit mention of funding for science or science policy in the Republican platform or in Senator McCain's campaign pledges, but Senator Obama does include a significant increase for NIH in his plans. Now, what the fate of that would be in light of the looming economic catastrophe, who knows?

FLATOW: But shouldn't that be an issue of ethics itself? I mean, what to fund? What kinds of programs we should be spending our money on?

Mr. MURRAY: Absolutely. It's both an issue of good science policy - I mean, what kind of funding for science - public science? What of encouragement for the research and development in the private sector are going to - the most beneficial for the American economy and for the American people?

What are going to lead to jobs? What are going to lead to economic growth in this country? That's very much a value question and then where you put it. Do you put it in health? Do you put it in so-called translational research? Do you put in basic research? Those are very difficult questions of judgment and value.

FLATOW: During the last debate, Senator Obama and McCain differed, I think the first time I'd ever heard it spoken so succinctly about health care, whether it should be a right or it should be an imperative. You know, should it be something you have a right to or something that is something a company can decide to give you one.

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah, I think the question was framed, is healthcare a privilege, the right or an obligation? And Senator McCain answered, an obligation. Senator Obama answered, a right, and then told the very touching story of his mother dying of cancer and fighting with insurance companies.

Americans have struggled with this for a long time. In the early, around 1983 I think, it was, that was 25 years ago, there was a presidential bioethics commission that started under Carter, but finished under Reagan.

So, by the time the final report which is (unintelligible), access to health care was written. The commissioners themselves were overwhelmingly Reagan Republicans. They nonetheless said that all Americans - America as a society has an obligation to make sure that all Americans had access to needed health care.

That was a pretty radical statement for that time. And it slipped unnoticed into the world, and no one has acted on it since. But I think quite frankly between that kind of genuine deep social obligation to provide each other with health care and calling it a right, is not a great deal of difference.

FLATOW: There was a bill, and we're going to talk about this in another program, but there was a bill that was passed last week amid the bailout bill that requires doctors and the health-care system to treat mental illness on the par with physical illness.

Mr. MURRAY: Yes.

FLATOW: And I thought that was, you know - they say it took 12 years to get that, but it seems like an incredible ethical issue here.

Mr. MURRAY: Well, people who struggle with mental illness or have people they love and their family who is struggling with mental illness have been fighting this for a very long time.

And there is still a bit of suspicion and stigma associated with mental illness, and if this helps to lift it, and it helps to assure that people get - with mental illness - get access to treatment, that's all for the good.

More and more clinicians and families and patients understand mental illness as a brain disease. It's not just behaving badly, but it's really a disease.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Charles in Buford, North Carolina.

CHARLES (Caller): Hello, good afternoon to you all.

FLATOW: Good afternoon.

CHARLES: Afternoon. All right. I would like to follow up on a statement you made earlier about the Reagan administration saying that Congress could get pertinent science information from lobbyist. And my question is why can't - hard to put it - maybe nonprofit or positive-science corporations lobby to government also? And I'll take my answer off the air, thank you.


Mr. MURRAY: Well, it was the caller who said that Reagan, when he dissolved OTA, said that (unintelligible) science could (unintelligible) on lobbyists. I don't remember, but I heard dissolved OTA, I don't remember the lobbyist line, but it was a great line. I am not quite sure what Charles was proposing.

I can tell you that there is increasing activity among nonprofits at least, to try to provide more valid and balanced information to Congress. So, the Hastings Center is stepping into this arena.

We now have something called a bioethics briefing book with analysis of three dozen issues that we think are of interest and to policy makers, and are likely to be the concern for either legislation or regulation in the next Congress.

FLATOW: How far down do you think these issues will be for the next President? I think he's going to have a lot to tackle. Do you think that the President will at least get a presidential advisor on tap pretty quickly - science advisor?

Mr. MURRAY: Well, I should hope so that, you know, the first recommendation from the study group of the Center of the Study of the Presidency was that there should be an assistant to the President for science and technology.

And at that appointment and the head of other agencies, such as, senior science agency should be among the very first appointments made. I mean, they should already know who they want for those offices quite frankly. And they should very quickly begin inventing them.

FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I am Ira Flatow talking with Tom Murray, president and CEO of the Hastings Center. What would be - what's on the top of the Hastings Center list now? What is the most important do you think?

Mr. MURRAY: We're looking at guidelines at the end of life. This is - part of this is health policy, I mean, do we provide adequate support for things like hospice care? Do we have good policy for palliative care? Palliative care isn't just an end-of-life issue, although it is very important at end of life.

But we've got a fight right now going on between the Office of Drug Policy and doctors who want to be able to use effective and powerful pain-control drugs for patients who are - you know, who are suffering. So, that's an issue that's up for us, and as I mentioned synthetic biology we're working on.

I work a lot on an issue that I don't think is going to be very high on the President's agenda and that is the ethics of enhancement technology. Everything from drugs in sports to gene doping, to college students or scientists and engineers taking drugs that they think are cognitive enhancers.

FLATOW: Yeah, but that's everywhere. It's all around us.

Mr. MURRAY: It does - I mean, I did have a cup of coffee before I began talking with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRAY: I admit that. And caffeine is a pretty non-specific and pretty benign drug, but it does affect the brain.

FLATOW: And you know, this being baseball playoff season and World Series, it might be a good time to raise those whole drug-enhancing issues.

Mr. MURRAY: When is a bad time to raise it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURRY: I mean, we just lived through an Olympics where very few people were caught with drugs, but now they are going back and reanalyzing some of their samples, for first some of the drugs that they didn't test for initially.

We had three cyclists recently eliminated from competition in Europe because of the use of a recent generation blood-boosting drug. So, yeah, it's pretty interesting. Sports isn't a metaphor for everything else in life, but it is interesting.

FLATOW: All right. Tom Murray, thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

Mr. MURRAY: Its' a pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tom Murray, president and CEO of the Hastings Center. It's a nonpartisan bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.