Maureen Condic

Charlie Ehlert, University of Utah Health

Crashing the boards: Neuroscientist Maureen Condic brings a different voice to NSF oversight body

On Wednesday, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will welcome the first cohort of members appointed by President Donald Trump to its oversight body, the National Science Board. Most of the seven fit the mold of senior academic leaders, prominent scientists, and corporate research managers who typically sit on the 24-member board. But Maureen Condic is somewhat different.

An associate professor of neurobiology at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Condic works in spinal cord regeneration, a field NSF does not fund. Bioethics is a passion of hers, and she has weighed in publicly on highly partisan debates in Congress over the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions and embryonic stem cells in research—issues on which the science board defers to other federal agencies. She also believes scientists should stick to their expertise in advising the government and has chastised researchers for claiming to have a better understanding than nonscientists about how new technologies and techniques should be used.

“I’m very much an advocate for broader public input on science policy, and less reliance on the opinions of scientists who have a vested interest in the outcome,” Condic told ScienceInsider in an interview shortly after her appointment was announced. “We tend to take the attitude that what scientists say is good for their enterprise is good for society. But that may not be true.”

“I think that scientists feel they are not always listened to,” she adds. “But often it’s because they believe their own expertise should determine what the government should do, and that if we can do something, we should do it. They will tell policymakers that the technology is safe, that there are no ethical problems with it, and that the public will support it.”

A career shift

Condic is a product of the research enterprise whose behavior she has questioned. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in Illinois, her Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of California, Berkeley, and did a postdoc at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis before joining the Utah faculty in 1997, where she is an associate professor at the university’s medical school. In 2001, she published a single-author paper in her field’s leading journal reporting that alterations in a single gene could help adult neurons regenerate.

That paper, along with two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), established her in the field. But it also led to some soul searching that would take her career in a new direction.

She says she was careful to describe her 2001 paper as basic research involving rats, without immediate relevance to clinical medicine. Yet Utah’s press release declared that the work might open the door to “new approaches for treating brain and spinal cord injury.” Reacting to those words, people suffering from such injuries and desperate for a cure started to contact her, she says. And a heart-wrenching conversation with one member of that community compelled her to rethink her role as a scientist.

“I saw the need for more public education,” she says, “and for more accurate dissemination of what we know, even if the message isn’t easy or encouraging. That was a long time ago, but it started me down the road as a bioethicist. And it’s become a bigger job than I thought it would be.”

Over the next decade, Condic also shifted the focus of her research away from neural development—in part, she says, because of rude behavior by colleagues.

“It’s an enormously complex problem that would benefit from a team-oriented approach to research,” she says about cortical regeneration. “But oddly enough, the involvement of [actor] Christopher Reeve [who suffered a serious spinal injury in a horse riding accident] and other celebrities attracted a group of scientists who took a less collaborative approach. They wanted to be the ones in the limelight for finding a cure. People stopped sharing—after 20 emails and five phone calls, people still wouldn’t send you an antibody—and it got really frustrating.”

She says that “sour atmosphere” caused her to seek out colleagues in the medical school working on a completely different problem—how to treat those with congenital heart defects. Her role, she says, has been to study the characteristics of stem cells taken from amniotic fluid with the hope that someday they might become a readily available source of healthy cardiac cells for patients.

“It’s a field that wasn’t quite so much in the news,” she says. “It provides an opportunity to help patients without all the drama.” Although some of the work is supported by NIH, Condic is no longer an independent investigator. “My work in science policy and bioethics has taken me away from active funding for my lab,” she says.

In the policy arena

Condic’s first major appearance on the policy stage came in 2013, when she testified at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in favor of a proposed nationwide ban on abortions starting at 20 weeks after fertilization. (The Supreme Court has upheld the right to an abortion through the second trimester, or 24 weeks after conception.) A key premise of the bill, which twice passed the Republican-led House but was never taken up by the Senate, is that a fetus can feel pain at as early as 8 weeks.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s civil justice panel, Condic asserted that an 8-week-old fetus can experience pain, a claim many fetal development experts dispute. But Condic appeared to deliver a contradictory message in the course of her testimony.

“There is universal agreement that pain is detected by the fetus in the first trimester,” she told lawmakers midway through her opening statement. “The debate concerns how pain is experienced, that is, whether a fetus has the same pain experience a newborn or an adult would have.” In her closing comments, however, she asserted, “It is entirely uncontested that a fetus experiences pain in some capacity from as early as 8 weeks.”

Many neuroscientists would draw a distinction between how spinal cord cells react to a pain stimulus in an 8-week-old fetus, as Condic initially described, and the point at which there’s a cognitive reaction to pain (which was the rationale for the legislation). Asked about the difference, Condic says she was a last-minute substitute for another witness and “maybe I wrote [her testimony] wrong.”

She says her main goal in testifying was to knock down an argument made by abortion rights advocates that “later arising cortical structures are required for a conscious awareness of the experience of pain. And I believe that view is not supported.”

Condic’s next foray into biopolicymaking came in 2016, when she provided scientific advice to an investigation launched by House Republicans opposed to the use in biomedical research of human fetal tissue from elective abortions that would otherwise be discarded. That use is legal under a 1993 law. A special House investigative panel, led by then-Representative (now Senator-elect) Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), was looking into media allegations that Planned Parenthood had illegally profited in obtaining fetal tissue from legal abortions for medical research.

The January 2017 report from the Special Panel on Infant Lives recommended ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood and barring NIH funding for research using human fetal tissue from elective abortions. The 470-page report also asserted there is no need for human fetal tissue in biomedical research, suggesting it had played no role in treating patients, preventing disease, and improving human health.

More than a dozen investigations launched by state and federal agencies found no evidence of illegal activity by Planned Parenthood. And experts have refuted many of the claims in the report. But Cordic says she feels the report “did a good job of presenting the scientific evidence” and that the criticism it received “doesn’t reflect an accurate understanding of what the report said.”

Advice to scientists

A recurring theme in Condic’s writing and statements is the need for scientists to stick to their field of expertise when they weigh into policy debates. In a 2003 paper co-authored with her brother, Samuel Condic, then a graduate student in philosophy, she condemns the so-called Nobel syndrome, in which Nobel laureates feel qualified to take positions on topics that are both outside their discipline and beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. That’s wrong, she says, and policymakers shouldn’t succumb to that pressure.

Scientific groups can display a condescending attitude that only makes the problem worse, she writes. “The sentiment underlying many of the advocacy positions taken by scientific societies appears to be: Leave us alone to do as we see fit, you who cannot understand or evaluate what we are about.” The paper suggests several reasons for giving the views of scientists less weight in policy debates, including their inherent bias for “what may be possible” and their “substantial disregard” for “the broader interests of society.”

In her interview with ScienceInsider, Condic ticked off three areas in which she feels scientists have run roughshod over public opinion. “I would say CRISPR genome editing, human embryonic stem cell research, and human-animal chimeras are three good examples of where the science is having a disproportionately large impact on the development of public policy without adequately accounting for the concerns of the public—ignorant, informed, or otherwise.” She says the December 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing—which was convened by the leading national scientific academies in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom and featured scientists, physicians, and bioethicists from around the world—was the latest example of that hubris.

“I mean, we live in a society,” she says. “And if people have concerns, it’s not OK to simply ignore them. And sometimes when you engage in a conversation, you come to appreciate their different views. In the field of stem cell research, for example, I haven’t heard a lot of sympathy expressed for the concerns of people opposed to human embryonic stem cell research.”

Condic knows both what it’s like to be part of the in-crowd and how it feels to be excluded. In Utah, officials of the Catholic Church cited the “sacrifices” Condic has made in praising her 2015 appointment to the Pontifical Academy for Life, a group of bioethicists and medical scientists that advises the Vatican on issues regarding the sanctity of life.

“As a diocese, we’re very proud of her, of the work she has done as a Catholic, as a committed woman, and as a scientist,” the Most Rev. John Wester, bishop of Salt Lake City, said in a statement after the Vatican announced her appointment. “She’s really been an advocate for a pro-life message and she has done this at great personal sacrifice. It has not always been easy for her; she has suffered in her profession because of the very strong stance she has taken in defending life, and yet she has not wavered.”

Condic serves on a Pontifical Academy committee that is looking into human gene editing. “We are trying to take an objective view of what is being done, the pros and cons,” she says. One major issue, she says, is whether the technology will be applied “equitably” in the developing world. She and her brother have also just published a book offering scientific and philosophical arguments for the idea that human life begins at the moment of fertilization.

A secret admirer

Condic says she has no idea how she was picked to sit on the science board, whose mandate is to “recommend and encourage the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering.” Appointees sometimes acknowledge their benefactors, who may be sitting members of Congress. But, Condic says, “I’m a pretty apolitical person. So, I was somewhat surprised to be nominated.”

Members are chosen through a confidential process in which names are forwarded to the White House. The science board also weighs in, although there have been times when its slate of candidates has been completely ignored. Eight members are named every 2 years to replace those who have rotated off the board, although members can also be reappointed to a second, 6-year term.

“The White House Office of Presidential Personnel has a list of people who have been supportive of the president and who want to be helpful,” explains Neal Lane, a former NSF director and science adviser to former President Bill Clinton who is now at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “There are a lot more [presidentially appointed] committee slots than there are Cabinet positions or ambassadorships,” he notes, “so it’s more likely that a scientist would wind up on one of those advisory committees.”

Condic’s first chance to share her thoughts with her new colleagues comes when the board convenes this week at NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. If her paperwork has cleared—a 2012 law removed the need for the Senate to confirm science board members—she’ll get to vote as well as participate in the 2 days of discussions. Among the agenda items is one that should resonate with Condic: an update on a contest NSF launched this fall to solicit public input on the agency’s funding priorities for 2026.