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Response to Nebraskans for Research

Nebraskans for Research recently released a critique of Wesley Smith and his affiliation with us, Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. Their critique however, contained a number of factual errors that should be addressed.

Error #1. Intelligent design is creationism

The NFR document states, that intelligent design theory (ID) is, “the latest manifestation of anti-evolution creationism.” This is incorrect.

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. ID is a research project to find out if design is detectable; it doesn’t make identity claims about the designer. ID proposes scientific tests that can be verified, not presuppositions or interpretations of Genesis or other religious documents that must be believed. For further reading, see: Intelligent Design and Creationism Just Aren’t the Same.

Error #2. Discovery’s Center invented ID

The NFR release charges that, “The Center invented ID and is the driving force behind promoting it.” This is also incorrect.

While Discovery’s Center for Science & Culture has become the institutional home for the ID movement, the Center was not started until 1996. The two founding books of the modern ID movement, “The Mystery of Life’s Origins” (1984) and “Darwin on Trial” (1991) clearly predate the Center. Furthermore, articulations of design in nature extend back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks. Kepler, Galileo, & Newton would all be considered “design theorists” by contemporary definitions of intelligent design theory.

Error #3. Discovery’s Center advocates a particular religious viewpoint

NFR states that, “Though difficult to spot on the Discovery Institute web site, a particular religious viewpoint motivates the work of the Center.” This is incorrect.

Discovery’s Center has gathered together scientists and scholars from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. The Center advocates no particular religious viewpoint. We only maintain that design is a detectable entity and that discussion of design, and the evidence for it, not be sequestered from discussion over life’s origins. Attempts to disqualify the argument by ad hominem attacks (and incorrect ones at that) are particularly distasteful.

For more information on Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, please visit us on the web at: www.discovery.org/crsc. Of special note is our Response to Critics section.

———————————————————————-
—–Original Message—–
From: Nebraskans for Research [mailto:info@nebraskansforresearch.org]
Sent: Monday, February 03, 2003 8:20 AM
To: info@nebraskansforresearch.org
Subject: Follow-up info on NCER presentation

Most underlined words are active hyperlinks to source documents. If the links don’t work, the document can be accessed on the Web: http://www.nebraskansforresearch.org/stemfacts.htm.

Who are David A. Prentice, Ph.D. and Wesley Smith?
On Friday, January 24, the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research (NCER) sponsored a presentation entitled, “Human Stem Cell and Cloning Research – A Scientific and Ethical Discussion.” This was given in the morning to an invitation-only group of State Senators and members of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents at the State Capitol, and at noon in the 4th floor ampitheater of University Hospital. The speakers were David A. Prentice, Ph.D., and Wesley Smith. Dr. Prentice is professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, Center for Science and Culture.

But who are they, really? What are their credentials? What is their agenda?

Consider the following:
(links to document sections below):

Prentice is an advocate, not a stem cell researcher.

In order for Prentice to be right, virtually the entire scientific community has to be wrong.

Adult stem cell researchers whose work Prentice cites support pursuing both embryonic and adult stem-cell research.

What about cloning and Smith?

Abusing science.
Prentice is an advocate, not a stem cell researcher.
According to his web site “Dr. Prentice is an internationally recognized expert on stem cell research,” and, more revealing and relevant for an assessment of his purportedly scientific views, “a Founding Member of Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics , and a Fellow of the Council for Biotechnology Policy, Wilberforce Forum .”

But a search of the entire CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects) database maintained by the National Institutes of Health shows that Prentice has received only one NIH grant since 1972, and that did not involve stem cells. All researchers at Indiana State University had a total of 87 NIH grants over that period. In contrast, University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers obtained 2,813 grants from 1972 to date.

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In order for Prentice to be right, virtually the entire scientific community has to be wrong.
According to his testimony before the Subcommittee on Crime, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, in June 2001, Prentice claims that “an acceptable, ethical alternative to embryonic stem cells does exist. Adult stem cells are making good on what are only promises of embryonic stem cells.” Prentice is virtually alone in that position.

In addition to the list of organizations below who have concluded otherwise, even the conservative President’s Council on Bioethics, doesn’t agree with Prentice. They stated clearly in their July 2002 Policy Recommendations on Human Cloning that the current early stages of both embryonic and adult stem-cell research should “temper assertions that biomedical researchers can pursue their goals without using human embryos because other approaches that are morally nonproblematic will surely prove successful.” (They noted fairly that the same considerations should also “temper claims of medical miracles just around the corner” sometimes made on behalf of embryonic stem-cell research.)

Prentice also claims in his public presentations that people aren’t paying attention to the details of the science of adult and embryonic stem-cell research. You cannot accuse the President’s Council on Bioethics, or the following organizations and individuals of lack of attention to detail. These organizations and individuals are among the many too numerous to detail here that have reviewed the science and issued reports and/or adopted positions strongly in favor of pursuing both embryonic and adult stem-cell research:

1. The National Academies of Science

a. The report is the product of a 9-month project. Prentice made his case at the June 2001 workshop but the panel concluded that “Public funding of research on human stem cells derived from both adults and embryos provides the most efficient and responsible means to fulfill the promise of stem cells for achieving medical breakthroughs.”

2. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

a. Comprising 14 full and seven associate member societies representing over 60,000 researchers

3. The American Society for Cell Biology

4. The National Institutes of Health

5. The American Association for the Advancement of Science

6. The American Medical Association

7. The 74 member organizations of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research

8. 40 Nobel laureates

9. The American Society for Gene Therapy

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Adult stem cell researchers whose work Prentice cites support pursuing both embryonic and adult stem-cell research.
The people actually doing the adult stem-cell work can’t be accused of inattention to detail either. Foremost among these is Catherine Verfaille , Director of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute , who published a paper in June 2002 that found new evidence that adult bone marrow stem cells, dubbed multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPC), can function in a manner similar to embryonic stem cells. At “Stem Cells for Journalists Day” at the University of Chicago on October 24, 2002, Dr. Verfaille exclaimed “they haven’t talked to me about it” when confronted with the fact her findings have been cited by some as a reason to stop embryonic stem cell research. She stated again that she advocates continuing MAPC and embryonic stem cell research. “There are too many unanswered questions,” she says. “Adult cells may be a better source for certain tissues and embryonic cells for other tissues.” She has expressed this viewpoint consistently.

Five other adult stem-cell researchers contacted via e-mail whose studies Prentice cites as evidence that embryonic stem-cell studies are unnecessary, in fact view parallel embryonic and adult stem-cell research as necessary in light of the many unanswered questions that exist. They are Fred Gage of the Salk Institute, Darwin J. Prockop of Tulane, James Fallon of the University of California-Irvine and Ammon Peck of the University of Florida, and a fifth who requested anonymity. (Three others did not respond to the inquiry.)

Dr. Peck notes that “At present, there are convincing arguments that adult stem cells may exhibit properties that make them better than embryonic stem cells; nevertheless, there are also convincing arguments that embryonic stem cells exhibit properties that make them better than adult stem cells. Only future research will provide answers as to the potential benefits of any one stem cell population over the others.”

He goes on to place the science in the context of the policy choices implied by a proposed ban. “As is usually the case in biological systems, there is never an absolute, and this certainly applies to stem cells. Because there may be potential benefits to using one type of stem cell over the other types of stem cells, depending on the particular use or specific disease, one must ask the question, ‘is it fair that anyone, based solely on personal belief, should rule out potential benefit to others who are suffering immeasurably from a specific condition?’ In other words, if embryonic stem cells proved to cure one specific condition, while adult stem cells proved to cure a second condition, are we, as a society, prepared to dictate that only patients with the second condition could be treated? Interestingly, to date, I have not found an individual who might benefit in the future from embryonic stem cell therapy tell me that embryonic stem cell research should be halted! As a result, this question begs the issue as to whether any one group should impose their beliefs on any other group…and this is an issue with which our society must grapple every day.”

Dr. Fallon noted “that the total amount of research dollars and effort spent on examining the potential of adult stem cells (ASC) in brain (and other organ) repair is abyssmal.” Nevertheless, “restricting research and clinical trials access to embryonic stem cells (ESC) is ill-advised. We simply do not know under which circumstances (early or late in the disease process? age of patient? presence of other co-morbid factors and conditions in a patient? etc) that ESC or ASC therapies would work best.” He concluded, “There is also the obvious point that if we are allowed to carry out ESC research and trials in the US, quality and ethical control factors would be optimized.”

Dr. Prockop put it this way, “We are finding that the adult stem cells we are studying can be used for more and more of the purposes that embryonic stem cells have been used. But we do not know that they will be as good as embryonic stem cells for all diseases. Therefore more research on human embryonic stem cells is still needed if we are serious about developing new treatments for the millions of people now suffering from untreatable diseases.”

And Dr. Gage answered “yes – most definitively” when asked if he supported the continued study of human embryonic stem cells.

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What about cloning and Smith?
Prentice’s case against somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) techniques to create human embryos in order to derive genetically matched embryonic stem cells (therapeutic cloning) is based largely on his case against embryonic stem cell research discussed above. In addition, he has cited a paper by James Thomson , the scientist who first derived human embryonic stem cells, and others that “the poor availability of human oocytes, the low efficiency of the nuclear transfer procedure, and the long population-doubling time of human ES cells make it difficult to envision this becoming a routine clinical procedure even if ethical considerations were not a significant point of contention.”

In addition to citing his own private conversation with Thomson in which Thomson expressed support for therapeutic cloning research, Nobel laureate Paul Berg made the following point in a radio debate with Prentice in May 2002 ;

“Scientists discover by research, by carrying out experiments. To sit and predict what could be done, what can’t be done, it seems to me is totally inappropriate. Twenty-five years ago, people would have made predictions about what one could do with recombinant DNA and what one would not be able to do. We look today at the extraordinary range of accomplishments using recombinant DNA, and they attest to the brilliance of the people out there who are doing the science. So Dr. Prentice predicting what will be done, what could be done, what can’t be done precludes doing any of the research.

In fact, the most devastating effect of the Brownback bill [to ban all human cloning, similar to LB 602] is that it criminalizes any attempt to explore the potential. We’re not trying to predict all the outcomes. I think what we’re asking for is the opportunity to explore the full potential of what these cells could do and that procedure. The low efficiency of the nuclear transfer procedure is what we’re talking about the state of the art today. The state of the art in two years from now may be very different, and the number of eggs and the success rate will change dramatically. But we’re not going to be able to do it if the Brownback bill passes.”

Wesley Smith , who opposes therapeutic cloning, makes no pretense to be a scientist, at least owning up to being “a public advocate in the fields of consumer protection and medical ethics.” Smith is a fellow of the Center for Science & Culture of the Discovery Institute . As is obvious upon a review of their web site, the primary mission of the Center is the promotion of so-called “Intelligent Design Theory,” (ID) the latest manifestation of anti-evolution creationism. The Center invented ID and is the driving force behind promoting it.

Smith weighs in on one side of what is a very contentious debate with legitimate and heartfelt arguments on both sides, as illustrated by Sen. Orrin Hatch’s support of therapeutic cloning and the recent joint statement of support for therapeutic cloning research by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Rabbinical Council of America.

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Abusing Science.
Though difficult to spot on the Discovery Institute web site, a particular religious viewpoint motivates the work of the Center. This has been well-documented with respect to the Center’s work on ID. Such religious motivation is more explicit in Prentice’s involvement with the Council for Biotechnology Policy, Wilberforce Forum . Its web site states, “the primary goal of CBP is to be a reliable, credible, and authoritative resource for those who seek to know and understand bioethics from a Christian perspective.” This is also clear from the Biblical quotation Prentice included on the cover page of his presentation to Purdue Students for Life.

It is certainly the right of everyone to express their viewpoint, based on whatever intellectual, philosophical and religious foundation they choose. In the case of stem-cell research, we are discussing public policy in a pluralistic society where people are free to decide matters of religious faith and practice according to their own conscience. Again to restate Dr. Peck’s rhetorical question, “is it fair that anyone, based solely on personal belief, should rule out potential benefit to others who are suffering immeasurably from a specific condition?” Or as a Maryland pastor put it , “those who might choose to suffer or even die themselves do not have the right to require others to become unwilling martyrs.”

And if one is an advocate for a religious worldview, they should be upfront about it, not purport to express an unbiased scientific view, while in fact playing the role of advocate for a particular viewpoint. Like advocates for intelligent design and tobacco industry spokesmen who wish to sow doubt about the role of tobacco in cancer, such advocacy exploits the public’s ignorance of the probabilistic nature of science and the scientific process of hypothesis, testing, peer review and replication of results.

Prentice exploits a basic fact of scientific research that “as a practical matter, research raises more questions than it answers, and thus creates more sources of uncertainty.” By citing statements of these questions in a manner that suggests that they cannot be answered by further research or to suggest conclusions based on very preliminary studies, Prentice distorts and abuses the scientific process.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his citation of a recent paper by Douglas Melton that called into question previously reported results that suggested embryonic stem cells were converted successfully into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells. Rather than being evidence that embryonic stem cells cannot ever produce effective regenerative therapies, Melton’s paper advanced the science by flagging a potentially misleading pitfall on the road to progress. Researchers are already adjusting their methods to avoid the same mistake that Melton’s lab uncovered.

And where stands Doug Melton, who has dedicated his scientific career to seeking a cure for the diabetes that afflicts his son, on the question of the continued study of embryonic stem cells? “Melton remains optimistic that, in the right conditions, ES cells can convert into those that make insulin. ‘It’s not nearly as efficient as we thought it was,’ he argues, ‘but there’s no reason to believe it can’t be done.’”

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Nebraskans for Research Home Page : http://www.nebraskansforresearch.org