‘Unpredictibility Inflicts a Heavy Cost on Scientific Progress’

Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, a daily online publication featuring the research of the school’s 200-plus faculty members, republished an op-ed by one of those faculty members Wednesday.

The piece, by William A. Sahlman, PhD – a professor of business administration and the school’s senior associate dean for external relations – discusses the strain of having to work in a lab that focuses on embryonic stem cell research, particularly in this uncertain time.

Sahlman originally wrote the article for the Boston Globe, and it was published in mid-September. But as the research community continues to wait for rulings from Judge Royce C. Lamberth and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Sahlman’s writing is just as valid today as it was back in September.

The challenges – not foreign to any ESCR researcher, but likely unseen by the general public – include the highly competitive nature of securing federal funding, reconciling the ethical considerations, the care taken to procure embryonic stem cells in the right way and the continual push to get your work published.

And then, because of a judge’s ruling, you find out that your work is now illegal.

You have no viable research projects under way. It will take well over a year to begin a new research stream, and there is a low probability you will get funded in a new area. You may be fired. In short, your career is in danger of total meltdown.

That is the real cost of our randomized model of research support in the United States, in which a change in administration or a court ruling can outlaw work that was previously supported by the government. Funding can be canceled with the stroke of a pen.

Sahlman also writes about the longer-term chilling effect on current and future ESC researchers: Projects with great promise will go unfinished. Those currently in the field might decide to seek out a more stable area (taking on additional risk by doing so). And bright students may shy away from a field with no future.

That further risks America’s competitive position and may leave the profit of new discovery to other nations.

“Unpredictability inflicts a heavy cost on scientific progress, whether in domains like stem-cell research or in searching for safe alternative fuels,” Sahlman writes. “It damages the United States’ competitive position because great projects won’t be completed here, and more importantly, great people won’t do the kind of work that is necessary to make progress on our most intractable challenges.”

Harvard’s Medical School, School of Public Health and School of Dental Medicine are all Research!America members.

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