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ISSUE 118 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/8/2004

Politics, science mix

By Aaron Johansen
Staff Writer

Friday, October 8, 2004

Peter Agre delivered his speech Science Policy and the 2004 Election to a full Science Center Thursday, Sept. 30. The discussion focused on Americas position in the world of cutting-edge science, and how policies and political viewpoints are affecting that position.

Born in Northfield, Agre is now a biological chemistry professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a 2003 Nobel Laureate in chemistry. Speaking at St. Olaf as part of the group "Scientists for Change," Agre expressed his concern for the American scientific community and its hindered progress due to politics.

A critical example of such concern was his friend Thomas Butler, an authority on infectious diseases at Texas Tech University. Butler was charged with losing plague samples and faced 69 counts of federal charges. Many scientists rallied in Butlers defense, saying his mistakes were hardly proportional to the penalties he faced: $17 million in fines and up to 200 years in prison.

Many legal twists were involved in these charges, including the government gaining a signed confession from Butler without his lawyer present. The overall opinion of the scientific community was that the Justice Department was using Butler as an object lesson for other scientists working with biological weapons agents.

Scientists say the governments main concern was the going public of its involvement in having academic institutions working on secret biodefense research. The charges against Butler were made possible by the Patriot Act.

The 2001-revised Patriot Act made new rules and regulations regarding the handling of potentially dangerous chemical and biological agents. The act also made it more difficult for foreign students to come to the United States to work, and a growing number of restrictions on the awards which can go to unclassified basic research projects.

A homeland security section of the act was used against Butler. Ultimately, Butler was sentenced to two years in prison by an undisclosed official outranking FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Agre explained that the Patriot Act was preventing America from getting the best scientists.

"The number of Ph.D. and world-class scientists coming to America has been declining since the acts establishment, Agre said. The transition to the United States is even more difficult if youre a foreign scientist."

Agre also expressed his concerns relating to stem cell research. "It shouldnt be likened to abortion, because stem cells are kept in freezers for long periods of time and cannot be called life," Agre said. He explained that stem cells show great potential in replacement surgeries and other branches of science, but government restrictions keep scientists from exploring many of these possibilities.

Agre closed his discussion saying how important it is for everyone to vote and to be aware of the candidates positions, as they affect science and other fields of study.

Students seemed both informed and excited about Agres speech and presence on campus.

"Its inspiring as a young scientist to see a man from Northfield make a new discovery and be awarded the Nobel Prize," Ian Vaagenes '07 said.

Agre was happy to come to Northfield to give the discussion, saying, "You never escape your roots."

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