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George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School. (courtesy of Harvard Medical School, Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer)
George Q. Daley, the new head of Harvard Medical School, knows what it's like when presidential politics collides with science. Daley was a leading stem cell scientist back in 2001 when President George W. Bush suddenly barred federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cells — a gesture to Republican antiabortion backers that, many believe, put a chill on one of the most cutting-edge areas of biology.
The move turned many scientists, unexpectedly, into activists. The diplomatic Daley helped Harvard create an institute in 2004 to work around the federal funding restrictions; California bucked the Bush administration by devoting its own state funds to the research. President Barack Obama eventually reversed the executive order in 2009, allowing federal funds to be used; today, embryonic stem cell based therapies are being tested in clinical trials, and studying them has helped unleash a wave of new medical insights.
As of Jan. 1, Daley occupies one of the highest-profile jobs in American medicine, a de facto spokesman both for research and medical practice. And he arrives at a moment when the entire field is nervous about what the Trump administration has in store. The White House seems not only indifferent to research, but also actively hostile to some strains of science; the future of the Affordable Care Act is uncertain at best. Drug prices, immigration and the national research budget — all issues crucial to the medical field — are all up for debate. By nature a scientist, accustomed to gathering evidence before opining about solutions, Daley says he thinks his experiences working in a field that was marginalized by politicians may provide some useful lessons for navigating what he called a "cacophony of confusion and alternative facts."
Daley spoke to The Washington Post about his hopes and concerns as he takes the helm at Harvard Medical School — around the same time as President Trump. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Right now, there’s uneasiness in the scientific and medical communities over how evidence and research will be treated, ranging from vaccines to climate change. Having lived through a time when your work was directly politicized and targeted, what are your thoughts about how to approach a situation like that?
I think that the lessons that I learned in the early challenges and policy debates around embryonic stem cells have a lot to teach us for how to advocate forcefully in today’s world. We have to, as scientists, stick to our message, which is that science and evidence is the way to make informed decisions — whether those decisions are about advancing human health and wellness, or about advancing the environment and maintaining not only healthy air quality, but reducing risks to catastrophic climate change. These are all fundamentally, at some level, challenges and risks to human health.
If I had one worry, as we see the cacophony of confusion and alternative facts, it's that we’re reverting to a pre-Enlightenment form of thinking, which will take us back to the days of blood-letting and faith-healing. And this is wrong. This is not the way to advance health and wellness for the greatest number, not a way to face our challenges. We are facing some of the greatest global challenges today — not just with global warming, but with threats to emerging pathogens, whether it’s Ebola or Zika. And if we start to question the nature and value of things like vaccines in human health, how are we going to be able to confront the challenges of new pathogens?
[Why America’s health-care spending is projected to soar over the next decade]
Do you think that this is something that's already happening, or is it a future worry?
The storm clouds are on the horizon. If I just speak to one issue that has a very direct effect on our community: Our biomedical research enterprise, as well as our clinicians draw on the best and brightest, from not only the United States, but around the globe. We are a magnet, we’re seen as the beacon of the best, cutting-edge research and the most effective and impactful clinical training and health care delivery. I’ve met with students from Iran and Syria who are here studying and about to graduate. And they’re worried that their parents are not going to be able to come see them receive their PhD or their MD. We’re worried about the pipeline — not only of trainees who keep us at the cutting edge, but patients. Our health care centers are magnets for patients from all over the world, and in many cases from the Middle East, and it stands in the way of our mission...
For years, this scientist defended his field against presidential politics. Now he’s got one of the most prestigious jobs in American medicine.
Harvard scientist worries we’re ‘reverting to a pre-Enlightenment form of thinking’