Progress at the speed of science

Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, made a fascinating observation to Kerri Miller on MPR’s Midmorning today during a discussion about stem cell research (Listen to his comments – RealAudio):

Dr. James Thomson, the University of Wisconsin researcher, started the stem cell debate in 1998 when he was able to isolate embryonic stem cells by destroying the embryo. Not quite 10 years later, he appears to have ended the debate by “plucking” the stem cells without destroying the embryo.

We are, it seems, expanding our ability to understand ourselves at an astonishing rate; unimaginable progress when you consider that it was only five years ago that scientists completed the mapping of the human genome.

Never mind that scientists — you know how scientists are — aren’t proclaiming victory yet because the research hasn’t been corroborated. It’s still a stunning display of progress, especially when you consider that one month — one month — after Thomson’s discovery, there’s new research out showing that using stem cells from the tail of a mouse appears to have cured the mouse of sickle cell anemia.

In a previous post today, I note that researchers have zeroed in on another key element of how we learn from our mistakes, a critical step in mastering an understanding of how we learn at all.

It’s not hard to realize why politicians and scientists don’t mesh well. Science is always moving forward.

Fast-rewind to 1975, when Gerald Ford signed legislation setting a 27.5 miles per gallon fuel efficiency standard for automobiles (22.5 for light trucks and SUVs, which didn’t exist at the time). Thirty-two years later, the U.S. House on Thursday advanced legislation to add 7.5 miles (12.5 miles for the trucks and SUVs) to that, by 2020. It faces a tough go in the Senate.

The automakers, at least the ones in Detroit, are bringing a “can’t do” spirit to the effort, judging by an article in the Detroit Free Press today…

Despite those breaks, automakers said the compromise still will require costly investments in new technologies. GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner, an ardent critic of government fuel economy rules, said the deal will “pose a significant technical and economic challenge to the industry.”

A 40-percent increase in fuel standards sounds like a lot. It’s the equivalent, however, of advancing the technology at the rate of one-third-of-one-mile per gallon every year since Gerald Ford’s 1985 target.

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