Wednesday, October 6, 2010
What an amazing story the development of in vitro fertilization is! The scientists here had to fight against government, religion, and the media, but they persisted. The New York Times tells the story, which has much to instruct us with.
First, let us not forget the dangers to freedom from government funding of science (especially when such funding crowds out private funding):
Dr. Edwards’s research proved too controversial for the Medical Research Council, a government funding agency that is the British equivalent of the National Institutes of Health. In 1971 the council rejected an application from Dr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe to work on in vitro fertilization, but they were able to continue with private funds.
Second, there are the criticisms of one's peers. This is not so much a problem of government, but still:
Both Dr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe had to endure an unremitting barrage of criticism while developing their technique. Dr. Steptoe “faced immense clinical criticism over his laparoscopy, even being isolated at clinical meetings in London,” Dr. Edwards wrote in the journal Nature Medicine in 2001 after receiving the Lasker award. “Ethicists decried us, forecasting abnormal babies, misleading the infertile and misrepresenting our work as really acquiring human embryos for research.”
Third, and (in this case even worse than the government funding limitations) are the regulations of science:
Despite the ethical objections leveled at his work — some of which persist today, over the disposal of unused embryos and the high risk of multiple births — Dr. Edwards was nonetheless allowed to develop the technique over many years. “It would be very difficult to develop in vitro fertilization now because the ethical committees would have stopped his research,” Dr. Macnamee said.
If the story is correct, we might not be able to develop in vitro fertilization if we had to do so under today's regulatory regime. How many innovations are now being stopped?