For at least the past five years, the primary message of those seeking political and financial support for stem cell science has been that the research offers enormous hope of leading to treatments and cures for a myriad of diseases, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and even paralysis following spinal cord injury.
So the message delivered by David Gergen, professor of public service at the Kennedy School of Government and director of the School’s Center for Public Leadership, was hardly what the stem cell scientists and supporters attending the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s Third Annual Shelly and Tony Malkin Stem Cell Symposium expected to hear.
After discussing the role of the stem cell issue in next Tuesday’s mid-term elections, Gergen told the approximately 120 guests at the Oct. 27 symposium dinner at the Harvard Club:
“It strikes me that this effort on stem cell research ought to be based on more than ‘how can we alleviate human suffering?’ – as important as that is,” Gergen said. “We ought to continue pushing that,” he continued in the suddenly hushed dining room, “but I also believe … that there is a larger issue in which stem cell research finds itself, that also will have some compelling political impact and make a difference politically over time. And that is the degree to which we find ourselves increasingly, as a nation, in competition with a rising China and a rising India and other nations, which are becoming direct threats to American jobs.”
The push for support of stem cell science, Gergen argued, should be seen as part of a much larger effort to increase support for science education and science and technology research, an effort necessary if America is going to remain competitive in the current global economic environment.
“I believe there ought to be a very big, serious effort that’s undertaken by universities, by corporations, and by citizens who are willing to lend their support to form a coalition … to really drive home in Washington and around the country that we must invest much more seriously in science, technology, and math to keep this country on the cutting edge. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in relative decline – and there’s a big question whether it’s already started. Our research universities are our crown jewels and we simply have to invest in them in a serious way,” Gergen said. “You scientists ought to be given freedom to just go about your research … but the presidents of these institutions ought to be out fighting.”
When Gergen told his audience that the combined SAT score of teachers being hired in California is 1,000 and added that in the past four years the entire University of North Carolina system has graduated only three “count ’em, three, high school physics teachers,” there was an audible stir from those at the dinner tables.
Calling for a coalition of corporate CEOs, university presidents, and other interested citizens to carry the science education and research message to Washington and the rest of the country, Gergen concluded, to loud applause, “We need to build a culture, a culture that says what you’re doing is precious to our future.”