"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


In the 20th century, we led the way—our discovery of transistors led to everything from radios and televisions to cell phones and PocketPCs. But the leading technologies in the 21st century—cures for cancer, heart disease, and mental illness—will all be biological, and without research on stem cells, we will be left behind.

Gary Marcus

Dear Mr. President,

With the threat of war in the Middle East, continuing concerns about terrorism, and a weak economy, science is probably not high on your agenda right now. But it should be.

Some the decisions you make now could dramatically affect the fate of our country, not just in the next decade, but in the next century. Perhaps most important among them will be the choices you make about stem cell research. If your administration continues to restrict stem cell research as it has, America will lose its place at the forefront of science and technology.

It will start slowly; few people will notice as some of our best scientists move elsewhere—to countries like Britain, Canada, Germany, and Japan. But within a decade or two, someone will notice that the most important patents and technology of the 21st century are all held elsewhere. In the 20th century, we led the way—our discovery of transistors led to everything from radios and televisions to cell phones and PocketPCs. But the leading technologies in the 21st century—cures for cancer, heart disease, and mental illness—will all be biological, and without research on stem cells, we will be left behind.

Stem cells are so important because they hold the key to life itself. Everything about the human condition—from the heartbeat or a smile of a newborn baby to the ability of our bodies to fight off disease—follows from the choices of individual cells in growing organisms. Embryonic stem cells burst with potential, therapeutically and scientifically; they truly can become anything. The researchers who master their secrets will be able to use them to repair damaged hearts, build vastly better drugs, and even regenerate damaged brain tissue and heal fractured minds. They will also be able to use those secrets to figure out what makes the human brain special, and in so doing open the door to new kinds of tools for education, probably not yet even dreamt of.

In the next century, the most educated, the most healthy, and the most wealthy citizens will be the ones living in the country that best understands the science of the human body. Let us not lose our place at the head of the class.

Gary F. Marcus
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology at New York University
Author of The Birth of the Mind: Creating the Complexity of the Human Brain (forthcoming).

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