President's Council on Bioethics

Published Apr 11, 2004

On February 27, 2004, the Bush administration dismissed Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a leading cell biologist, and Dr. William May, a prominent medical ethicist, from the President's Council on Bioethics. For three years, Dr. Blackburn had served on the panel, which is charged with advising the president on the ethical implications of advancements in biomedical research. Dr. Blackburn is best known as the co-discoverer of telomerase, an enzyme linked to cancer cell growth. This discovery launched a burgeoning cancer research field. According to Nobel laureate Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Blackburn "is a very smart and successful scientist…one of the top biomedical researchers in the world."1

Dr. Blackburn believes that she was dismissed because she disapproved of the Bush administration's restrictive position on stem cell research. According to Dr. Blackburn, she and Dr. May frequently disagreed with the administration's positions on the ethics of biomedical research.2  She was removed from the panel soon after she objected to a Council report on stem cell research. In an essay in the April 1, 2004, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Blackburn recounted how the dissenting opinion she submitted, which she believes reflects the scientific consensus in the United States, was not included in the council's reports even though she had been told the reports would represent the views of all the council's members.3

The removal of Drs. Blackburn and May—and the subsequent appointment of new panel members who were supportive of the administration's stated positions, significantly limited the range of views available to the president on bioethical issues. This action violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, which requires balance on such advisory bodies.4 As Dr. Blackburn herself pointed out, she was one of only three full-time biomedical scientists on the panel, which, even prior to her dismissal, was weighted heavily to nonscientists with strong ideological views. While no one disputes that nonscientists should play an important role on a bioethics panel, it is equally important that scientists, with strong biomedical expertise, provide the necessary scientific context for the panel.

The administration has claimed that politics played no role in Dr. Blackburn’s dismissal,5 but in the wake of Dr. Blackburn's firing, some 170 researchers signed an open letter to President Bush protesting the decision.6 Dr. Janet Rowley,7 Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Molecular Genetics at the University of Chicago and current member of the Bioethics Council, has characterized Dr. Blackburn's dismissal as "an important example of the absolutely destructive practices of the Bush administration."8

Among those expressing concerns about Dr. Blackburn's dismissal was the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), which represents 11,000 scientists worldwide. ASCB issued a public statement contending that Dr. Blackburn's dismissal reflected a pattern in the Bush administration in which politics trumps science. As ASCB President Harvey Lodish noted: "In his 2001 speech announcing the creation of the Council, President Bush said the Council would include strong representation from leading scientists. This action significantly undermines the ability of Councilors to base their considerations on the foundation of sound science."9

1. As quoted in Elias, P. 2004. “Scientist lauded after government fires her,” Associated Press. March 18.
2. Author interview with Elizabeth Blackburn, March 2004.
3. Blackburn, E. 2004. “Bioethics and the Political Distortion of Biomedical Science,” The New England Journal of Medicine 350(14):1379-1380. April 1. See also “Science and the Bush administration: Cheating nature?” The Economist, April 7, 2004.
4. See Federal Advisory Committee Act, 5 U.S.C. Appendix 2, Section 5(b) 2 and 3.
5. See, for example, Kass, L. 2004. “We Don’t Play Politics with Science,” The Washington Post. Op-ed. March 3.
6. See Holden, C. 2004. “Researchers blast U.S. bioethics panel shuffle,” Science 303:1447. March 5.
7. Among her many credentials, Janet D. Rowley M.D., D.Sc. is internationally renowned for her studies of chromosomal abnormalities in human leukemia and lymphoma. She is the recipient of the National Medal of Science (1999) and the Albert Lasker Clinical Medicine Research Prize (1998), the most distinguished US honor for clinical medical research. 8. As quoted in Elias, P. 2004.                        8. “Scientist lauded after government fires her,” Associated Press. March 18.
9. American Society for Cell Biology. 2004. “Cell Biologists Oppose Removal of Top Scientist.” (pdf) Press release. March 2.