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UC Berkeley Web Feature

UC Berkeley at forefront of stem cell ethics interchange

– Rarely has a medical revolution captured the hopes and horrors of so many as has stem cell research. While many college campuses reflect this ethical divide, UC Berkeley's new Science, Technology and Society Center is bringing together scientists and humanities and social sciences scholars in a unique effort to promote both innovation and values in bioengineering.

Key members of the multi-disciplinary group gathered recently at the campus's Women's Faculty Club to update reporters and representatives from UC Berkeley Public Affairs about their work.

"Innovation and ethics can and must coexist, and Berkeley can promote this," said Charis Thompson, an associate professor of rhetoric and of gender and women's studies, and director of the campus's Science, Technology and Society Center.

Indeed, Thompson said, UC Berkeley is establishing itself as a frontrunner in this area. For example, the Rothschild Foundation, which has funded stem cell research at Harvard University, is particularly interested in the integration of ethics into university stem cell programs. Upon hearing about the multidisciplinary program at Berkeley, they recently provided funding for the program here.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau allocated funds in early spring 2006 to kick-start UC Berkeley's stem cell program, with a proportion of those funds going to research and training in the societal implications of stem cell research.

David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics and society in the College of Natural Resources and associate director of the Science, Technology and Society Center, which was established last year, said the stem cell issue is "an experiment in science and democracy."

As part of the roundtable discussion last week, UC Berkeley pundits talked about how moral, legal, political and religious forces shape the role of science in society, and suggested that the news media has an obligation to look beyond the hyperbole.

"Part of the public debate is that people are afraid of new things," said anthropology professor Paul Rabinow, co-author of "A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles." "Part of the function of media is to do a somewhat different job of presenting what's going on so that some of the fear-mongering and the hope-mongering, which go together, are somewhat downplayed."

Public fear and national security concerns pose a formidable threat to scientific innovation, he said: "How do we defend free inquiry in all sectors of biosciences from being taken over by this or the next administration? How do we combat the anti-technical, anti-science feeling which is massive in the humanities and social sciences?" Rabinow asked.

And that is precisely what underscores the need for efforts such as the Science, Technology and Society Center, said bio-ethicist Alta Charo, a visiting professor at the School of Law (Boalt Hall) and a leading authority on stem cell law.

"The presence of multidisciplinary groups that are looking at the sciences is crucial because we've all seen science stopped dead in its tracks and defunded because of social reactions," Charo said.

Irina Conboy, an assistant professor of bioengineering who uses stem cell science in an effort to combat degenerative diseases that come with aging, said the interchange is necessary because there is often a "disconnect" between academics and working scientists like herself.

"What we are trying to do is to create a dialogue," said Conboy, who plans to open her lab for public tours.

Conboy pointed out that students also play a major role in the wide-ranging stem cell education effort on campus. For example, Conboy is sponsoring a student-taught DeCal class called "Stem Cells: Science and Society."

"Berkeley is unique," Conboy said. "That is why you have this bottom-to-top interest in stem cell science."

One former UC Berkeley student of stem cells and society is Josef Tayag, who took his expertise to the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, which advocates for minority groups on a number of fronts, after graduating earlier this year.

Tayag has been focusing on how the benefits of California's Prop 71 initiative will trickle down to the Greenlining Institute's constituents. California voters passed the $3 billion bond measure in 2004. Earlier this month, the Greenlining Institute sponsored a stem cell conference at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute called "Toward Fair Cures."

As a young Filipino immigrant in Southern California, Tayag said, he encountered many language and economic barriers. When he got to UC Berkeley, he said, he hit his intellectual stride, particularly through his work at the Science, Technology and Society Center.

"This is the kind of environment that Berkeley - with the leadership here in this room - promotes," said Tayag, who spoke at the roundtable discussion on campus. "It's amazing to see how (low-income and minority) students have so much to contribute if people just give them a shot. Berkeley is one of those places that gives those students a shot."