Science in the Crosshairs

BY HANK REICHMAN

Readers of this blog may be familiar with the regular National Public Radio (NPR) feature “Science Friday.”  Last week one 35-minute segment, “Science in the Crosshairs,” focused on governmental and other threats to the academic freedom of scientists.  It began with fetal tissue research:

After furor erupted over a video seeming to imply that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue to research institutions, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce convened a select investigative panel to examine practices involving fetal tissue in late 2015. Since then, the panel, chaired by Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, has issued subpoenas to more than 80 individual researchers, institutions, and companies involved in research on fetal tissue or its procurement.

The scientific community has said these subpoenas threaten researchers’ time, energy, and reputations, and that other activities by the committee—such as making public the names and addresses of researchers who use fetal tissue—could endanger those researchers’ lives. University of Pittsburgh virologist Carolyn Coyne talks about the danger the new frenzy over fetal tissue research could have, and why this research is vital. As one example, it could help us better understand and prevent the spread of Zika virus. And Eugene Gu, whose company Ganogen has been subject to one of these subpoenas, describes the burden that congressional attention can put on scientists. In his post as a surgical resident, for instance, his research has been on hold for more than a year. In May, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology called this panel “a witchhunt” by the anti-abortion lobby.

University of Pittsburgh virologist Carolyn Coyne talked about the danger the frenzy over fetal tissue research could have, and why this research is vital. As one example, she pointed out that such research could help us better understand and prevent the spread of Zika virus.  Eugene Gu, whose company Ganogen has been subject to one of these subpoenas, described the burden that congressional attention can put on scientists. In his post as a surgical resident, for instance, his research has been on hold for more than a year.

The show then turned to other fields, particularly climate science.  Pennsylvania State University Professor and AAUP Committee A member Michael Mann joined Climate Science Legal Defense Fund executive director Lauren Kurtz to share their experiences.  Mann is also the co-author of a new book that discusses the challenges facing those who talk openly about climate research.  He told listeners that lawsuits, subpoenas, and other scrutiny serve only to intimidate and exhaust scientists, such as the NOAA researchers who received subpoenas from House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in late 2015 (see also Mann’s op-ed piece in the New York Times at the time).

Science Friday’s website featured some tweets the show received after its broadcast from scientists recounting additional experiences with harassment. Here, for example, is a selection of the “charming” emails received by Katharine Hayhoe, a Christian and climate scientist at Texas Tech University:cuk5j80w8aazphf-jpg-large

To see all the tweets and listen to the segment go here:  http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/whats-in-a-subpoena/

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