University of Utah neurobiologist Maureen Condic was recently appointed to the 25-member National Science Board by the Trump administration. KUER’s Erik Neumann sat down with Dr. Condic to learn about her work on bioethics in the health sciences.
Erik Neumann: From the popular literature that I have read, I would describe you as a pro-life neuroscientist. Is that an accurate description?
Maureen Condic: I would not describe myself that way. You're, of course, at liberty to describe me any way you choose. I would describe myself as a person who is driven by the facts and by logic. Unfortunately, in the case of a human embryo, I think often that leads to what the public might see as a pro-life position. To call me a pro-life neuroscientist would suggest that some pre-decided set of views is driving the ethical and scientific analysis and I think that's absolutely the reverse of reality.
EN: What is the National Science Board? What does it do?
MC: The National Science Board was established about almost 70 years ago as a kind of governing board for a National Science Foundation. So, as an agency that would be populated by scientists by university presidents, provosts, other people who are charged with enacting research in the university domain and the role of those people would be to work with the president and with Congress to set priorities for the NSF. Priorities for funding of scientific research at the national level and to oversee the activities of the NSF, kind of providing feedback, providing corrections if necessary, but mostly as an advisory board.
EN: Tell me about your job, what does it mean to be a bioethicist?
MC: My job is, formally, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah. I've worn a number of different hats over my tenure here. During the early years of my appointment, I ran a research laboratory and I was primarily involved in medical teaching and in scientific research on the development of the nervous system. Mid-career it started shifting into public education and academic discussions of bioethics surrounding human development. Over this period of time, I was also teaching predominantly human embryology to medical students.
I was appointed as the ombudsman for the university within the last five years, so increasingly the amount of time I spend during the day is spent either addressing conflict at the national level or at the local level. And, maybe that's the best definition of what bioethics looks like.
EN: What sort of issues have you deliberated on as a bioethicist?
MC: I've had a lot of work on issues surrounding stem cell research for example. Or on components of human development and, in particular, when human life begins or when developing humans have had moral status. I've also spent a fair amount of time illuminating the scientific evidence on the question of fetal pain.
EN: I saw your 2013 testimony before Congress that was related to the bill that was seeking to ban abortions after 20 weeks. You've testified that fetuses feel pain after eight weeks. Do you think that this was part of the reason for your appointment?
MC: The process of nominating people to the National Science Board is confidential so I am not privy to how that process went. But my understanding is that staff in the office of the president solicit names from a wide range of people including scientists, members of Congress, members of scientific societies. When they receive multiple strong recommendations from more than one individual those individuals kind of rise to the top of the nomination process. They are investigated and kind of a profile is presented to the president who ultimately makes the final decision.
[Editor’s Note: The science examining whether a fetus can experience pain at a specific time during gestation is a complicated issue not without controversy. Much of it stems from the fact that pain is subjective and in the case of a fetus, unproven at 20 weeks, according to a 2015 Politifact story. The review concluded that for a developing fetus it’s impossible to determine a starting point for pain and definitive claims of pain perception at 20 weeks are “unfounded.”]
EN: A lot of the popular press that cite your research are publications like The Federalist, Breitbart, and Life News. Do you feel like your work is rightly portrayed in those publications, or is it taken out of context?
MC: I think in any public reporting of a scientific position or a scientific argument there's going to be some simplification. So, I can't honestly say overall that the positions have been presented in their full and glorious detail. But I think the conclusions have been relatively straightforward. And the fact that publications like Life News or the Federalist — publications that people might conceive of as more conservatively oriented on a political spectrum — have picked those up is because they serve the political arguments that those organizations are trying to make.
It's unfortunate that science can be interpreted in whatever context people choose. My job is not to control the interpretation, my job is to accurately present the facts.
EN: Is it frustrating to see organizations with a particular political interest or political agenda using your research to support their argument?
MC: I would draw a distinction between people who are oversimplifying an argument and people who are merely simplifying it. I think if the basic conclusions have been accurately represented — as I said I have no control over how those are going to be used in a political context, and I may not always agree with it — then don't feel that I have a problem with that.
EN: There's a lot of anticipation out there about the future of women's health, about Roe v. Wade under the Trump administration and the Supreme Court. Here in Utah we have the fetal pain law, Protecting Unborn Children Amendments. I'm curious, do you anticipate offering bioethical advice on issues like this in the role with this board?
MC: Honestly, I don't. I think the role of the board is limited to the establishment of funding priorities for the National Science Foundation and for the federal government as a whole, and an honest evaluation of research priorities. What are the most important areas that need to be looked at? Not just because they have a social impact but also what is best addressed with the tools that we currently have. I think that I'll bring to a board that has had a pretty strong focus on the physical sciences, a perspective that is going to be valuable, that will create a greater emphasis on the biological side of the scientific enterprise, and that will bring an ethical perspective that I think is important to consider in all areas of scientific research.
Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.