Thursday, July 20, 2006

One Giant Leap - Backwards

One day short of the 37th anniversary of the moon landing, a feat which looks more and more spectacular (if not improbable) as time and technology advance, one day short of this milestone, the current US President took it upon himself to unilaterally impede the progress of science in a way that could benefit mankind far more directly, and far more rapidly, than the space program.

I am referring of course to President Bush’s veto of the stem cell bill passed by Congress, the one that would loosen restrictions on research using human embryos as stem cell sources.
The veto does not outlaw this research, but prevents it from being funded by taxpayers, which for practical purposes prevents it from being done to any significant degree in the U.S.

Thus, the U.S. is destined to fall behind the rest of the world in a technology that could be one of the greatest medical advances of the century.

Beyond the arguments pro and con, and the fact that the President’s moral/religious beliefs are being used to defy the will of the people, beyond all that, I can’t help but be struck by the difference in outlook between 37 years ago and today.

The public was told, and believed, that the US would not allow the Russians to get ahead, in science or in any venue, and that this was vital to the survival of democracy and freedom and the American way of life. I never quite followed that logic, but apparently it was true because the real issue with the space race wasn’t the pursuit of pure science so much as staking a claim for any weaponization of space that might one day be feasible.

Be that as it may, the initiative did foster a culture in which science was cool, kids aspired to be astronauts, the attitude was positive, forward-looking and productive, and the education system took full advantage of this outlook.

Not everyone was behind the goal of putting a man on the moon but the chief objection was that the incredible sums of money that went into it would be better spent on practical things such as alleviating world poverty and (duh) medical research.

Fast forward 40 years and what do we have?
A congress, senate and public sentiment that wants tax dollars spent on medical research, research that would likely have a tremendous impact in our lifetimes, on diseases as common as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

It’s a sad irony that just as one President ignited the spark that brought knowledge and achievement to his country, another has chosen to defy the will of the majority, relegating the US to Third World status in the global scientific community.

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