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Friday, October 19, 2007

“The Lingering Concequences of National Socialism” or Thoughts on Science in Europe

posted by on October 19 at 13:30 PM


I’ve just returned from a week long trip to Germany (Düsseldorf and Dresden) for scientific meetings on stem cell research and regenerative medicine—the land of cheerful public artwork, amazing cab drivers and tear-inducing-good mass transit. How many hybrids did I see? Zero

Some thoughts:


Human embryonic stem cell research in Germany is under tight restrictions. It is a criminal offense to destroy an embryo—defined quite conservatively as a fertilized egg after the fusion of the sperm and egg pronuclei. No stem cell line created after January 1st 2002 may be used at all, with private or public funds. Nor can research in Germany encourage the destruction of embryos elsewhere. In contrast, while public funded research is restricted in the United States to lines created before August of 2001, with private funds one can do essentially anything. The Germany policy, while more restrictive, is at least ethically consistent.

The policy reflects underlying conflict in the Germany constitution, between requirements to respect human life and the independence of science. This duality is reflected in North Rhine Westphalia Stem Cell Network’s structure, combining both scientists and ethicists together in a cohesive program. As one of the local scientists delicately put it, “concerns over the lingering consequences of National Socialism cause conservatism on the use of human tissues in research.” Slowly, the policy is liberalizing.

The embryonic stem cell ‘debate’ in the United States, between absolutist scriptural moralists and absolutist libertarians, is distressingly silly and unserious in comparison. (I personally favor an approach modeled from solid organ transplantation, in which the creation and distribution of human embryonic stem cells should be strictly decommercialized and regulated by an independent agency. And, I work on a near-daily basis with human embryonic stem cells.) The asinine Bush policies have guaranteed we will not have a quality debate on this subject. For that, one must go to the country where, not so long ago, my relations were processed into candles, buttons and soap.



The universality of English in science was startling to experience firsthand. Deep within the former East Germany—where Russian still predominates over English as the second language for “political reasons in the past” as per my host—scientific talks are given in English, even when no native speakers are present. Without fluency in English, one cannot publish in the most widely read journals, attend the highest quality conferences, or even access the vast repositories of biological data available online.

Here is where the NIH’s budget (comparatively paltry to the military budget) really pays off. For the decades following World War II, the brightest minds in the world have been drawn here, studied in American Universities and occasionally settled in our country. Those who return home become powerful ambassadors for American policy and worldview in the highly influential technocratic class. After now experiencing this effect firsthand, I’d gladly drink George Marshall’s bathwater.

With our newly punitive immigration policies—everyone gets fingerprinted and eyeball scanned upon arriving, a deeply unwelcoming act—, startling xenophobia of many Americans and steady cuts of the NIH budget (in real dollar terms) might finally kill off this effect. We’re fools for risking it.

If this post was insufficiently wonky for you, please continue to my blog to read an even more detailed breakdown.

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Germany does not allow people who are not legally married to be artificially inseminated (unless you use a turkey baster at home). Hence, gay couples do not have access there to fertility treatments.

English is ubiquitous in science everywhere; has since at least the 1960s.

Posted by S. M. | October 19, 2007 1:39 PM

Fascinating comparison and contrast.

One note about the cars: While you may not have seen any hybrids--Europeans really don't understand our enthusiasm for the technology--I'm sure you saw tons of cars with diesel engines, since they make up the vast majority of cars sold in Europe and deliver mpg in the 30s to low 40s.

The key difference, as I'm sure you're aware, is that hybrids reduce toxic emissions while diesels--even the newer, so-called "clean diesels"--greatly exacerbate them, which means that European cities have some of the worst air pollution in the world. I know you're not a fan of hybrids, but surely you acknowledge the potential air-quality benefit, yeah?

Posted by Original Andrew | October 19, 2007 1:43 PM

Of course, they have real transit that's focussed on urban dense areas, so it's not such a big deal, right, OA?

Just like they're building a high speed passenger rail line from Morocco to France.

Posted by Will in Seattle | October 19, 2007 1:50 PM

I don't think a reduced Anglo dominance of international science would be a bad thing. Having a lingua franca is obviously useful, but training the world's scientists to follow the US/NIH lead in research interests and priorities stifles other schools of thought.

Posted by CG | October 19, 2007 1:57 PM

Actually, even the small towns in Germany have good rail access -- even rural villages in Bavaria are connected with rail.

I saw only one Prius on a recent trip to Germany, but Germany produces a lot of canola-based biodiesel, and their climate is wet enough that they don't have to bleed dry their rivers to irrigate it excessively.

Posted by clay | October 19, 2007 2:01 PM

Everyone on Berlin was on bicycles when I was there, but it was summer. Rainy summer, but summer nonetheless.

Posted by Abby | October 19, 2007 2:05 PM

Of course, they have real transit that's focussed on urban dense areas, so it's not such a big deal, right, OA?

No, Will, it is a big deal. Because as you like to remind us, global warming is NOW. Not tomorrow.

Posted by Greg | October 19, 2007 2:09 PM

Will in Seattle @ 3,

While it’s true that most of Europe has great public transit that we can only dream about—and you’d have to be totally mad to own a car in a city like say, London—plenty of people still want and/or need cars. All you have to do is look at the eternally gridlocked streets to prove that hypothesis. Given that, the use of hybrids, and hopefully soon all-electric cars, is crucial as a tool for reducing air pollution.

Posted by Original Andrew | October 19, 2007 2:39 PM

Yet despite the fact that Germany taxes the Hell out of diesel and gasoline and massively subsidizes the train system it's still cheaper and faster to drive from Berlin to Munich or vice versa.

Posted by wile_e_quixote | October 19, 2007 2:56 PM

Original Andrew, You are D-U-M-B. Get your stats right before bloviating like Cliff Claven, k?

Posted by wbrproductions | October 19, 2007 3:00 PM

@ 10,

With an intellectual wit like that, you could write a Science Column! Genius!

It's true that my observation is based on my personal experience, but are you saying that the European cities' traffic-choked streets are proof that people don't want or need cars? Care to elaborate?

Take your medication, dude.

Posted by Original Andrew | October 19, 2007 3:43 PM

@2. Indeed, I can agree that the heavy particles from diesel exhaust are really awful for human health. Newer engines, like those in Germany, can do a very good job of reducing such emissions.

Most of the cars were stick shifts. That alone gives a significant mileage boost over slushboxes or CVT's, and doesn't require toxic battery packs.

Here's a fun tangential fact: Seattle has a pretty bad record for this type of air pollution, thanks to all the cargo container ships and China. Yes, about 30% of the air pollution in Seattle is blown across the Pacific. Wild.

@4. I actually agree with you. I found the Anglo dominance to be disturbing. Orwell had a good point; language determines thought, to some extent at least. Hence my (shattered) hope that science in Germany (or Italy or France) would be still conducted in the native tongue.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | October 19, 2007 4:03 PM

@12: Along with the language/thought thing is the issue of scientific fashion. Science is very bandwagonistic, and for good reason. You get a grant to research the topics you know best, which is what your PhD and postdoc advisor concentrated on. This is repeated everywhere, and if the primary source of education is the US you end up with a world of people working on stuff the NIH/US wants to fund. Maybe that's not a tragedy, but it's interesting to see the differences between US and Soviet science in the 70s and 80s. Because they had limited exposure to the West and relatively limited resources, the Soviets chose different problems to work on. This led to work that is complementary to (and often more clever than) stuff that was fashionable in the US at the time.

Posted by CG | October 19, 2007 5:12 PM

Lol, like they don't drive diesel cars that get around 80 mpg equivalent ...

And just won (today) the world Solar Power Housing competitition.

Results matter. Not you guys whining about how hard it is to deal with the reality that we have to do something about global warming.

Putting it off makes it worse.

Posted by Will in Seattle | October 19, 2007 5:25 PM

A council of scientists and ethicists- sounds like someone has been listening to Bauman.

Posted by ams | October 20, 2007 12:53 PM

Dresden's currently and historically a pretty cosmopolitan place, and the Cell Biology Institute's faculty and directors include Americans as well as a wide array of Western and Eastern Europeans.

Posted by Tell me another one | October 20, 2007 7:45 PM

Deutschland ist wunderbar! Hoffentlich du hast späß gemacht in Deutschland! Ich habe nicht nach Deutschland gefahren, aber hoffentlich bald. danke und tschüß!

Posted by Kristin Bell | October 21, 2007 6:25 AM

A diesel Honda? That gets 62.8 miles a gallon?
Feast your eyes on this, car technology and high-mileage nuts. It's a Honda Accord that runs on diesel.
Honda expects to bring the clean-diesel car to the U.S. by 2010. It gets 62.8 miles a gallon on the highway, but otherwise looks and feels like a regular Accord. At that mileage level, the car is about as "clean" as a new Toyota Prius. But if you run it on biodiesel, a form of diesel made from vegetable oil or animal fat, it would be even cleaner than a Prius (Priuses get 60 in the city).

The advantage of diesel cars, however, is that they pack a lot of power.

Posted by wbrproductions | October 21, 2007 12:33 PM

Genius here, thanks for the heads-up Andrew. I did take my medication, thanks, and I feel great! Care to make another science argument that you can defend?

Posted by wbrproductions | October 21, 2007 12:35 PM

@18: The other advantage of diesels is that they suck in cold weather.

Posted by Greg | October 22, 2007 8:03 AM

I'd like to tell you a story about Germans and trains.
A few years ago, my manager and I went to a little town about 45 minutes away from Munich by train. ( We initially flew to Munich) The trains were clean, fast, punctual and cheap. We decided to go back to the big city, have a few beers a bite to eat and a look around. Beer and food were duly consumed and we made our way back to the station and found the correct platform. There came over the tannoy an announcement and there was a collective sigh and dropping of shoulders from the assembled crowd. " Can anyone explain that in English please?" said I. Several people could and did. There was a 'suspicious package' on the line we needed to use." Can you tell us how to get to ( insert little town here!). Not only could they but a spontaneous relay formed. One helpful German would take us to a train, speak to another helpful German who would not only tell us which stop to get off at, but would find another helpful German to get us to the next platform, and so on. We got back to our hotel, late but very impressed. Try doing that in any other major city where you don't speak the language. And the English they spoke was a sight better than many born to it. I want to go back for a holiday!

Posted by Boz | October 22, 2007 8:03 AM

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