Understanding the political timing of stem cell studies

Consider the following events, their political timing, and their impact on the framing of the stem cell debate:

1) Last week, as the House was preparing to vote on legislation that would overturn Bush's limits on funding for embryonic stem cell research, studies published at the journals Nature and Cell Stem Cell reported that mouse skin stem cells could be turned into a pluripotent stem cell with all the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell. Coverage of the studies appeared on the front page of the Washington Post and other newspapers across the country.

Though the research teams connected to the two studies urged Congress to pass the legislation, Catholic and pro-life groups were quick to frame the event as offering a "middle way compromise," adding that moving ahead with embryonic stem cell research was no longer necessary. Others argued, as in this op-ed appearing at the Chicago Tribune, that a conspiracy was afoot to censor the promise of adult stem cell research:

Significant numbers of scientists believe that the less controversial route to creating stem cells is possible, but their voices have been drowned out by politicians who would have it that if you're opposed to embryonic stem cell research, you're a "right-wing nut" who opposes all stem cell research.

2) Back in January, Nature Biotechnology published a study reporting that stem cells derived from amniotic fluid may have similar potential to those derived from embryos. The release of the study coincided with this year's first vote on a House bill overturning Bush's 2001 limits on embryonic stem cell funding. The study, covered on the front page of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other leading news outlets, provided ready made framing fodder for embryonic stem cell opponents, interpreting the study as offering a "middle way" compromise, arguing that research on ESC was no longer needed.

"This is wonderful news," Richard Doerflinger, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told Rick Weiss of the Washiington Post. "It doesn't require harming anyone or destroying life at any stage." Sure enough, pro-life groups were quick enough to issue press releases calling for Congress to hold off on any vote in light of this "startling new scientific discovery."

The timing of these studies appeared as more than just coincidence, especially to the sponsors of the bills in Congress, as Rick Weiss reports in a follow up story yesterday at the Washington Post:

"It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, 'You don't have to do stem cell research,' " Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) sputtered on the House floor on Thursday. "I find it very interesting that every time we bring this bill up there is a new scientific breakthrough," echoed Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), lead sponsor of the embryo access bill. Her emphasis on the word "interesting" clearly implies something more than mere interest.

Even Harvard's Kevin Eggan, an author of a second study atNature, told the WPost that he thought the timing lacked political sensitivity. (Eggan's study involving mouse embryos showed that it might be possible in humans to create patient specific human stem cell lines using fertilized eggs that would otherwise be discarded from in vitro clinics, getting around the issue of egg donation.)

Yet in the same article Rick Weiss quotes Harvard risk expert David Roepik and Temple mathematician John Allan Paulos who argue that the appearance of more than just coincidence is nothing more than that old culprit of confirmation bias. Instead of an attempt to shape the political debate, the timing of publication is just the function of a great number of stem cell papers coming out right now. Advocates remember the ones released the week of the vote and forget the ones that are not:

To Ropeik, the Harvard risk expert, the fact that people are imputing anything more than sheer coincidence is "just more proof that inside the Beltway the thinking is so myopic. They see the whole world through their own lens, and are blinded" to common sense. .

Still, something more than just coincidence is likely to be going on here. Roepik and Paulos' arguments innocently assume that publication timing at science journals is random, without systematic bias. But journal editors, just like news organization editors and journalists, are subject to various biases, many of them stemming from the fact that they work within a profit-driven organization that has to keep up a subscriber base and play to their audience.

Peer-review is just one of the many filtering devices that scientific research goes through. Certainly many papers make it through peer-review based on technical grounds, but then editors at the elite journals, faced with limited space and the need to create drama and interest among subscribers and news organizations, apply more subjective criteria based on what they believe to be the "scientific newsworthiness" of the research. In other words, how much interest among the scientific community will these papers generate AND how much news attention?

Journal editors are joined in this "co-production of scientific newsworthiness" by science writers and their editors. Many stem cell studies are coming out these days, but not every study gets front page headlines. The scientific merits of the study are just one factor determining the coverage choices of journalists.

When the editors at Nature and Cell Stem Cell scheduled the release of these "middle way" studies, journalists and their editors recognized the obvious political connection, pushing coverage to the front page. In this negotiation of scientific research and news coverage, both journal editors and journalists win, creating drama and attention to their journals, by lines, and news organizations.

This is not the first nor the last time that journal editors will use political criteria in selecting research or choosing the timing of publication. Consider the events in 1999 that led to the firing of George Lundberg, former editor of JAMA. Back then I wrote about the topic in an op-ed for the Buffalo News and argued that journal editors had a duty to publish research that might bear on contemporary policy debates:

Last Friday's firing of George Lundberg, the seventeen-year editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), shocked the medical, science and media world. A statement from the American Medical Association (AMA), publisher of JAMA, gave as the reason for the dismissal, Lundberg's decision to publish research that shows 60 percent of college students surveyed in 1991 did not think that engaging in oral sex was "having sex." The study appears in this week's edition of JAMA, apparently timed to coincide with the Senate impeachment hearings and the State of the Union Address. AMA Executive Vice President Ratclife Anderson condemned the editor for "inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine. This is unacceptable."

...the scientific and medical communities, and the journals they publish, have a responsibility to inform and educate the public about scientific information pertinent to current public policy and debate. The Clinton impeachment proceedings may be the most important domestic political development of the century. Regardless of whether or not it is lost in the chorus of political rhetoric, if a scientific study can add light and clearer understanding to the impeachment deliberation, then it should be published. To say otherwise is socially irresponsible.

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