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UC Berkeley Press Release

New class on stem cell language, politics

– The University of California, Berkeley, is offering a first-of-its-kind class this semester on the language and politics of stem cell research and cloning - scientific topics dominating the headlines today as the state of California implements new stem cell research legislation.

Rhetoric and women's studies professor Charis Thompson said she created the class to analyze the ethical and political implications of cutting-edge scientific proposals and activity. She taught a similar class at Harvard University before joining the UC Berkeley faculty in fall 2003.

"In this day and age, we are increasingly being asked to act as what I call 'citizen-bioethicists,' and to have political and personal opinions about scientific, technical and medical matters," Thompson said. "This class is an attempt to outfit us for that role."

There are about 30 undergraduate students in Rhetoric 174, or "Rhetoric of Scientific Discourse: Stem Cells, Cloning, and the Genetic Imaginary."

Much of the coursework is tied to Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond measure approved by 59 percent of California voters on Nov. 2, 2004. The measure sets up a new agency - the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine - modeled as a state version of the National Institutes of Health. The bond measure was put forward in the wake of the Bush administration's decision to limit federal funding for any research that involves the destruction of human embryos, the source of some stem cells.

The first class assignment was to read the entire text of Prop. 71, Thompson said. The students quickly noted that the text doesn't use the words "women," "cloning," or "human embryo" - triggers for some of the most controversial aspects of the stem cell debate.

"I think a lot of people don't understand it," Thompson said of Prop. 71. "No one had read it in its entirety, so we were astonished to get to the bottom of the ellipses."

As part of their coursework, the students are required to interview people in the UC Berkeley community who are involved in stem cell research. Since the passage of Prop. 71, UC Berkeley scientists have begun to organize stem cell-related research on campus in an effort to tap into Prop. 71 funds.

"I think it's terrific that this course is being offered," said Randy Schekman, a professor of cell and developmental biology. Schekman is UC Berkeley's designated representative to a UC systemwide group focusing on Prop. 71 implementation.

"As we develop our own stem cell center, we are, of course, going to reach out to offer a non-scientific class on the topic," Schekman said. "This is a university, and everything gets discussed. It would be valuable to have people with other views working with scientists on this."

Thompson said her course has evolved as the stem cell debate has changed over the years.

"I refocused it to have the state and global focus," Thompson said. "My major interest is that we not move into an era where the parts of arts and science stay disconnected in the university, but in real life they are deeply intertwined."

As part of an effort to bridge that gap, Thompson is working with other UC Berkeley professors and administrators to create an institute dedicated to the intersection of science and society. A Berkeley Futures grant has been awarded to John Lie, dean of International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley, and to history professor Cathy Carson, to create the Science, Technology and Society Center under the aegis of International and Area Studies.

Thompson and Carson will be interim co-directors of the center, which is being launched later this semester.

Thompson and anthropology professor Cori Hayden also just received a collaborative research grant from UC Berkeley's Townsend Center for Humanities for developing curricular materials on issues of public interest around stem cell research.