WASHINGTON-Just over a year ago, President Obama signed an executive order loosening restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, followed by more detailed guidelines in July.
Ten members of the president's 18-member bioethics council at the time-all George W. Bush's appointees-criticized Obama's move. In June, the president informed council members that their work was finished. He said he would be building a new panel that would be more focused on "practical and policy-related analyses." A White House spokesman said that the Bush council was "philosophically leaning."
Tuesday night President Obama named eight individuals to his newly created Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, but he didn't shun philosophers.
"There's a fair share of people [named to the commission] in philosophy and bioethics when you think about it," said Robert George, a Catholic legal scholar at Princeton University who served on President Bush's bioethics council. "I don't like the politics of most of them, but the records of achievement are great."
Obama has repeated that he wants science separated from ideology. "We have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas," he said at the National Academy of Sciences a year ago.
The commission's chair, Amy Gutman, whom Obama named in November, has philosophy in her background. She currently serves as president of the University of Pennsylvania, but in her past work at Princeton, she founded and headed up the university's Center for Human Values, which wrestled with ethical questions.
Another new bioethics commission member, Anita Allen, is a professor of law and philosophy at Penn. And Nita Farahany, another named, is a professor of law and philosophy at Vanderbilt University.
The president also named a Franciscan friar to the panel: ethics scholar Daniel Sulmasy, who could be a strong advocate for life issues. "I don't think [Sulmasy's appointment] is really token," George told me. "I'm as critical of Obama on life issues as anyone can be-but he could have nominated somebody who purports to be pro-life but who has very little record in actually defending the right of the unborn to legal protection. . . . Sulmasy's not like that."
The commission could advise the president on a range of science policy, from stem cell research to genetics. The other top adviser to the president on science policy is John Holdren, who drew controversy last year because of his writings about population control. (See "Reformed radical?" by Emily Belz, July 22, 2009.)
The other new members of the commission are: Lonnie Ali, wife of Muhammad Ali; Barbara Atkinson, vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center; Alexander Garza, assistant secretary for Health Affairs and chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security; Christine Grady, chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center; Stephen Hauser, noted neurologist at the University of California in San Francisco; Raju Kucherlapati, genetics professor at Harvard Medical School; and Nelson Michael, who directs research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and for the military's HIV research program. James Wagner, president of Emory University, serves as vice-chair.
Atkinson gave $1,000 to President Obama's campaign.