OpEd: Stay Involved with Your Government

By Ann Kiessling, PhD

Ann Kiessling, PhD, presenting the 2014 Commencement Address at Oregon State University - Courtesy image
Ann Kiessling, PhD, presenting the 2014 Commencement Address at Oregon State University – Courtesy image

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in The Bedford Citizen’s OpEd posts represent the point of view of the contributor and remain their property.

Our Fourth of July Celebrations bring into focus the stark differences between our idealistic, wholesome, messy, rancorous democracy, and the many oppressive, power-hungry regimes governing the lives of billions of people throughout the world today.

We take our freedoms for granted, which is not the plan our Founding Fathers had in mind.  They envisioned government OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people, ALL of the people.  Government service was not envisioned to be a life-long career, nor a lofty position, but a tour of duty followed by a return to the private life of the common man.

To keep our democracy OF the people, it is the duty of every citizen to stay involved with government affairs — local, state and federal.  Each and every person has an obligation to devote a few hours each week to staying abreast of government activities and plans.

Two examples from the mid 1980’s:

  • The men and women dying of AIDS marched into the National Institutes of Health.  The policy was then, and is now, that drug-discovery is conducted by pharmaceutical companies, not basic scientists working in not-for profit research institutions with federal funding.   But the AIDS victims did not accept this federal dogma, they camped out on the NIH campus demanding research until, finally, federal funds were set aside for the discovery of drugs to fight the AIDS virus, and the grant review process was shortened from 9 months to 6 months.   In 20 years, 24 new drugs were discovered by not-for-profit basic scientists, who then partnered with pharmaceutical companies to bring them to market.  This is a rate of new drug discovery unprecedented in biomedical research, all because the AIDS victims became involved in government decision making.
  • At about the same time, assisted reproductive technologies to create human embryos in laboratories became standard of care in the U.S.   This was a blessing for couples struggling with infertility, and it was quickly embraced as a modern medical miracle.  BUT, the scientists and physicians involved had many questions about safety, efficiency and long term consequences.  Great Britain citizens struggled with the ethical issues associated with creating human embryos in laboratories, debated the pros and cons, and developed an oversight body to help guide the new field in ethical ways.   The U.S. did nothing.  The National Institutes of Health could not fund research on the fertilization of human eggs.  BUT, unlike the AIDS victims, the scientists and physicians who could see the problems so clearly did NOT march onto the NIH campus and demand to be heard.  They stayed in their ivory towers and bemoaned the lack of understanding of the importance of the research.  Consequently, when human embryonic stem cells were created by a U.S. scientist in 1998 with private funds, it became one of the major ethical issues of our time.  Great Britain had oversight in place to guide the work carefully forward, but the U.S. had nothing but chaos, which could have been avoided if the scientists and physicians involved in creating human embryos in laboratories had been more vocal 20 years earlier.  To this day, research on activated human eggs cannot be funded by our National Institutes of Health.

Stay involved with your government.

Every day, local, state and federal government officials develop laws and policies that affect every aspect of our lives.  Frequently, the “unintended consequences” are not manifest for several years.  Who is to blame for this?  The government officials who create the laws?  Or the citizens who let it happen?

A right now example of a sleeper government action that could expand into a huge problem for everything we do that depends on satellite transmission of information – weather, all forms of communication, critical defense activities to name a few — is these activities depend on maintaining satellites in space, BUT most satellites launched in the U.S. need a Russian engine to do so.  A Russian engine, not a U.S. engine.  How could this have happened?

It was a well meaning U. S. government action to bolster the Russian economy when the Soviet Union dissolved.  It seemed important to keep highly trained Russian rocket engineers employed.  So, the U.S. government contracted with Russian rocket engine companies to satisfy U.S. rocket engine needs.  Well meaning, but we failed to hold back a segment of our own rocket engineering enterprises in case the world situation changed – as it has now.  Unintended consequences of government actions.  Because it will take years to ramp up our own rocket engine production, the current Russian government pays little attention to our opinions.

Stay involved with your government.

You CAN “fight City Hall” because you ARE City Hall!

Have a joyous and raucous Fourth of July, as our Forefathers wanted, and vow to stay involved with government to help maintain our freedoms so our great-great grandchildren can also enjoy the Fourth of July.

To view Dr. Keissling’s complete commencement address:
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 Dr. Ann A Kiessling is the Director of the Bedford Research Foundation and is a retired Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.  She holds bachelor’s degrees in Nursing and Chemistry, a master’s degree in Organic Chemistry, and a doctorate in Biochemistry/Biophysics from Oregon State University.  Last fall she was the recipient of a honorary Doctor of Molecular and Cellular Biology from OSU.