Stem Cells Meet Google

U. of Michigan president says critics of book search program and opponents of stem cell research impede the social good.
March 8, 2006

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, was in Washington on Tuesday to give a speech about forging relationships, both nationwide and internationally, within the current era of science and technological competition.

She stressed that more collaboration -- and open-mindedness -- is needed on specific issues that affect her institution (and higher education generally), including its stem cell research initiative and its collaboration with Google. And she implied that those who oppose those efforts threaten to stand in the way of societal progress.

“Disruptive technologies and new ideas can generate scary reactions and burdensome restrictions,” said Coleman, in her address at the National Press Club entitled “Not Your Father’s Space Race.” “Like the science of stem cells, the technology of digitizing books and making them searchable is generating resistance, to the point of litigation.”

Coleman said that despite all the excited talk about America's declining competitiveness internationally, she is not fearful of the global pressures that currently face universities, which she believes will ultimately help spur progress. She does, however, believe that contrarians within the U.S. are impeding the “social good.”

“Our national priorities are not necessarily shared priorities, as any observer of Congress -- or American culture, for that matter -- knows,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot we rally behind together as a society, except perhaps who should be the next ‘American Idol.’ ”

Holding up a copy of a recent USA Today, Coleman said, “I think it’s pretty telling when coverage of the Grammy Awards beats out a cover story on America’s tenuous position as a leader in science and technology.”

Colemen, a biochemist, said that it is the shared responsibility of educators to help people understand the science behind certain issues, like stem cell research. She said that she often encounters members of the general public who don’t understand the different functions of embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. With a little explanation, she said that she can sometimes convince skeptics that the benefits of embryonic cell research are immense.  

Regarding the Google book search project, through which the University of Michigan is among several universities allowing their library collections to be digitally reproduced by the search engine, Coleman said “we are protecting the written word for all time.” 

Critics of the plan have argued that Google unfairly puts a burden on copyright holders by forcing them to have to contact the company to “opt out” if they do not want their books included in the search database.

“Authors don’t hold all the rights,” Coleman said in response to a question after her speech. “The public has some rights, too. Ultimately, the courts will decide.”

On the international front, Coleman said she is pleased with academic collaboration between nations.  Noting a summer 2005 trip by a delegation from the University of Michigan to Beijing and Shanghai, she said, “We did not travel to China to check out the competition, but to find ways to work together with our colleagues.” Coleman added that the university will soon work with the Chinese to explore thousands of chemical compounds found in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. She said that University of Michigan researchers are also in the process of establishing a program in qualitative social science research with Peking University.

“Academe is known for saying, ‘publish or perish,’ ” said Coleman.  “I say, ‘partner or perish.’ ”


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