Stem Cell Research Issues

Since the recent bill proposed by the Senate to support embryonic stem cell research through NIH funding, and the subsequent veto by the President, considerable discussion has ensued from each side of the issue. Today’s issue of Time Magazine has as its featured story, Stem Cells: The Hope and the Hype. The article explores the science of stem cell research, as well as the hype around the issue. It’s informative and worth reading.

Here are couple of points that might interesting in light of this issue.

FUNDING. In the USA, about 94 billion dollars is spent on medical research annually (figures are based on 2003 data). When I looked into this, I found that the NIH and the Pharmaceutical Industry contribute about equal amounts, $26.4 billion and $27 billion, respectively. In fiscal year 2005, NIH will fund $28.49 billion. Where does the rest of the funding come from. Biotechnology companies ($17.9 billion–19%); medical device companies ($9.2 billion–10%); and foundations and charitable groups ($2.7 billion –3 %–with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leading the way–this could increase given the fact that Warren Buffet will be giving Gates about $35 billion over the next several years). The government is clearly a major player in the medical research enterprise. From data that I have seen, in 2004, about $25 MILLION was allocated to stem cell research by the NIH stem cell research program.

So only a very small amount of funding comes from the Federal government. California is leading the way in spending on stem cell research . Citizens voted on and approved the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and plans to invest $300 million/annually for the next ten years to stem cell research. New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois have invested millions into funding stem cell research. This puts the NIH to shame, as far as funding is concerned.

ENVIRONMENT FOR RESEARCH. What is the best environment for scientific research? Is it done best when politicians hover over the shoulders of scientists, and even “edit” their scientific papers so that the results fit in with preconceived positions and views? Or is science best done within the parameters of the scientific community, with its checks and balances through peer review and open communication? Or is is somewhere in the middle? One quote from the Time Magazine article that fits here is this: “When it comes to such an impossibly complicated matter as stem cells, the best role for legislators and Presidents may be neither to steer the science nor to stall it but to stand aside and let it breathe.” It appears that the trend setters for scientific research might be centered in bellweather states such as California, New Jersey and Illinois, not the Federal government.

The Power of Teachers’ Beliefs

There was an interesting article in today’s New York Times, The Unfailing Belief in the Power of Teaching by David M. Herszenhorn. It’s a story about Andres Alonso, whose family, when he was 12, fled Cuba and settled in New Jersey. Alonso went onto Columbia University and Harvard (Law School), and then took a job in a Wall Street firm. After a few years, he decided that was not for him, and turned to teaching in the Newark schools as a special education teacher. After 11 years, he left for Harvard to pursue a doctorate in education. Just before he completed his dissertation, he was offered the job as head of instruction in the New York City schools.

Not only is his story a wonderful example of personal convictions, and the value of education (a similar story could be told of one of my brothers-in-laws who came alone to Boston from Cuba when he was 16, and by age 22 founded and developed the largest teflon coating company in the East), but its a story of the power of teachers’ beliefs in the fabric of teaching.

I found it interesting that his experience at Harvard impacted his view of educational theory (prior to his 11 years of teaching he no background in education or a teaching credential). But the richness of his teaching experience combined with his studies at Harvard resulted in an educator who brings the following to teaching:

“What he brings is an encyclopedic command of educational theory — often describing himself as a “researcher and a practitioner” — and a tireless belief that the system can improve. He describes himself ideologically as a “pragmatic progressive” but also said he had “deep conservative tendencies” in his views about the content matter that children should learn.”

And now he has the task of working with teachers in the NYC to promote the idea that all students can learn, regardless of their background. As Herszenhorn reports Alonso telling teachers “The children come as is; if the parents had better children to send us, they would.”

Alonso makes the point that students are not “at risk” a term he rejects (as do I), and instead talks about “struggling learners” and the environments that work to help them become successful learners. Engaging these students, in the ways that we’ve always thought about involving advanced students leads to more success, and the notion that the struggling learner can do it as well. Try looking for positives, designing relevant activities, teaching up, and insisting on hands-on experiences using real stuff are ways that are effective. All of these work, and as a result science is for all.

In an earlier post I talked about the Gates Foundation, and the work it is doing with high schools—trying to help students graduate and go on to college. At the center of their research and practice is the New York City schools. So it is no surprise to me that Gates and Alonso are teaming up to change the way high schools are organized (much smaller), and how teaching proceeds (more hands on with focus on each student, and communication among teachers and students).

You might want to read the original article, but if you don’t, what do you think about the power of teachers’ beliefs on the nature of teaching?

The Stem Cell Research Issue

This week the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have allowed researchers to do continued stem cell research. As promised, President Bush vetoed the bill a day after it passed in the senate.

NPR provided a detailed time-line of the Stem-Cell Debate, noting that in 1981 stem cells were first isolated by researchers Gail Martin at the University of California, San Francisco, and Martin Evans, then with the University of Cambridge (he’s now at the University of Cardiff). The debate reached the federal level in the U.S.A. during the Clinton Administration, which supported research using stem cells, and into the Bush terms. Bush limited funding (on stem cell research) to a few dozen lines of embryonic stem cells in existence at that date (August, 2001).

The Bush veto, which was expected, creates dilemma’s for many people. According to polls, more than 65% of American’s agreed with the U.S. Senate.

Michael Kinsley, writing in the Washington Post, offers an opinion (False Dilemma on Stem Cells) on the issue that is worth considering. Firstly, he does not see the issue as a moral dilemma. He argues that the stem cells for research come from embryos that are produced in fertility clinics, where more embryos are produced than needed for a successful implantation. You might find it valuable to read what he has to say on the issue.

What is your position on the issue? Should the government fund research projects using stem cells?

Part Deux: No Child Left Behind “Needs Improvement”

There is a high school in a Georgia County (in the Metro-Atlanta area) that will remain nameless. I know about the school because I lived within two miles of it. I could be writing about any school in the State or the nation for that matter. Anyway, the school is considered one of the top academic schools in the State. It received an award from the state for having the highest percentage of students meeting and exceeding state standards. However, this year the school did not meet the federal No Child Left Behind Law (NCLBL). How can this be? How can a school that has such high academic achievement in one set of tests, fail in another. It’s because of the math! If you go to the NCLB website they will lead to believe that things are working just fine.

The NCLBL divides each school into subgroups based on various factors, e.g. ethnicity, English language learners, students with disabilities, students from poor families. If anyone of the subgroups does not “pass” then the whole school fails.

Some argue that this is good. Making sure everyone meets the mustard. But others ague that it penalizes the whole because of a subgroup. It’s a dilemma. And one that calls for careful discussion.

But what has the NCLBL done? In one sense, the Feds are pitting one group of students against another. For example, the unnamed school cited here has about 13 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, 50 percent white and 25 % African-American. I have no data on other subgroups, e.g.. students from poor families, etc. So if any one of the sub-groups does not attain an average test score in let’s say reading or math, then the whole school is warned—you didn’t make it. It sounds like a good thing. Keeping the school accountable. But the typical remedies involve very old psychology. In the old view, students are like vessels into which one pours knowledge and wisdom. Tests are designed to measure trivial pieces of this knowledge. If your subgroup didn’t make it, then we’ll pour more of that trivial knowledge at you, and prepare you to take the test. Very little is done to the infrastructure of the school, or to re-think the purpose of schooling, and how to meet the needs and challenges of students—at least in the model being used in Georgia.

In schools that are made up of a single group, say all white or African-American, the chance is higher to meet the test standards because only a single set of scores is used to create the average score for the school. In a way, the Law discriminates against schools that have integrated, and work with students with all abilities. Doesn’t make sense, does it.

There is a very good possibility that there is very little mixing of the subgroups in this school. So students who are not doing well academically are less likely to be in courses with students who are doing well. This is distinctly unfortunate. In studies done looking at the value of heterogeneous grouping, students at each end of the academic continuum do better academically, as well as socially. As long as the Federal Law stays in place, there will be little room for harmony and innovation in teaching and learning.

The Federal Law takes away from schools the ability to create a learning environment that will be tailored to the needs of students, and the abilities of teachers. It rules from a distance, and removes the locus of control away from the school, and places it in the incompetent hands of bureaucrats.

Discovery Returns to Florida

Space Shuttle Discovery returned safely to Florida after a really important mission for NASA’s astronaut corp, and the Space Station.

After three space walks, transferring thousands of pounds of supplies, and removing trash, the astronauts “installed new equipment outside of the station, tested technologies and techniques for repairing small areas of damage to the shuttle’s thermal protection system in orbit, and performed an experiment to see if an extension of the shuttle’s robot arm can be used as a work platform without too much sway or wobble.”

NASA will be busy over the next few years as it plans to make at least 16 flights of the shuttle to the Space Station. This mission hopefully will get them started on that path.