When warm weather beckoned this spring, genetics graduate student Matthew Weed joined fellow students studying outdoors for the first time in his six years at the School of Medicine. Weed, who is blind, used new wireless technology for his Macintosh laptop to listen to articles being read aloud and to check his e-mail—all in the semibucolic setting of the Harkness Courtyard.
Weed is close to completing the dissertation on science and public policy that was just taking shape when he was profiled by Yale Medicine three years ago [“Bringing Science Into Focus,” Summer 2000]. He is studying “what society decides to do about controversial research: how to regulate it, how to assimilate it.” Part of his analysis compares how policy-makers in the United States and the United Kingdom regulate scientific research in areas such as stem cells and cloning. “Different countries come to different policy-making decisions. Why? I’m interested in the decisions themselves and what the mechanisms and who the contributors were.”
Weed could have studied this topic in a political science department, but he says he would have missed an important element: “exposure to how scientists think about science and how physicians think about medicine.” He said researchers are very reluctant to confront the fact that the practical uses of their discoveries may frighten or repel society. Scientists fear that if potential problems are made salient, they’ll lose their freedom, says Weed.
But facing these issues is not optional, Weed argues. “No single government can stop knowledge from being created.” The challenge is “how to assimilate knowledge even if we’re uncomfortable with it.”
Weed hopes to find a job in Washington with a large corporation or a government policy-making agency. He is considering strategies for how to incorporate medical support for his diabetes into his daily life once he leaves the university, where volunteer students monitor Weed’s glucose levels and inject insulin twice daily. When he’s away from his laptop, Weed still goes inline skating (with a friend to guide him), and he plans this summer to try water skiing for the first time.