What Washington Can Learn From the Yale Political Union

How can the ethics of compromise and confrontation, as practiced in Washington, be improved?

Washington being the place that it is, Senator John McCain was happy to escape to Nantucket. Who could blame him? A week ago McCain was one of over 70 speakers participating in the third annual Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas.

After addressing the dysfunction in Washington and the civil war in Syria, the Arizona Republican was scheduled on the final day of the event to do something quite unique and unexpected. McCain, who recently published an open letter to the Russian people in which he claimed to be "more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today," was to engage in a dialogue with Vladimir Pozner, the Russian/American journalist best known for appearing opposite Phil Donahue to represent and explain the views of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That is not the kind of conversation you hear every day, but alas, it was a conversation that never happened. McCain's visit was cut short, as he was dispatched back to Washington. Before he left, McCain reminded the audience how he had fought against Obamacare, but had lost. Other members of his party, on the other hand, were either unwilling or unable to grasp the concept of majority rule. And so, a shutdown loomed, the ultimate symbol of Washington dysfunction. 

This was the context in which a Yale student named John Aroutiounian took the stage to kick off the event. A former Senate Page, Aroutiounian is no stranger to the ways of Washington. But his approach to intellectual engagement is something of a foreign concept in these times of partisan brinkmanship

Aroutiounian is the Speaker of the Yale Political Union, one of the oldest collegiate debating societies in the United States. Every week the union gets together and conducts a parliamentary-style debate. Aroutiounian's responsibility is to ensure that intellectual confrontation, "which is sometimes ugly, sometimes easily resolvable, happens every week." If that doesn't happen, Aroutiounian says, he has failed. 

What tends to happen every week, however, is that the students find an area of common ground, and then they are able to go home as friends. 

So how can the ethics of compromise and confrontation, as practiced in Washington, be improved? Aroutiounian presents the idea that politicians ought to be ranked based on how well they do, rather than their position on any given issue. Aroutiounian calls this the "talk-to-walk ratio." 

Ted Cruz spent 20 hours making a speech on the Senate floor a few weeks ago. Aroutiounian would give him a low grade for what amounted to little more than a publicity stunt. 

On the other hand, Aroutiounian is not naive. The Yale Political Union, he admits, can't really exist in real life. "You can't have ideals and notions detached from their consequences and from public opinion," he says. But on the other hand, the nasty situation in Washington is not sustainable either

It doesn't have to be this way. After all, the things politicians are arguing about right now are fairly small, at least compared to 50 years ago. Communism is gone, Aroutiounian points out. Segregation is gone. And yet the volume seems to be louder than ever. 

This is the case thanks to the media, Aroutiounian says, and that is why in his talk Aroutiounian argues that we need more actual debate happening outside of the media circuit. 


Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more videos and big ideas from The Nantucket Project. 

For event highlights, click here

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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