Stem Cell Debate at Critical Juncture

Opinion: Demanding regulation in exchange for funding and oversight may be a smart move for stem cell researchers.

Federal funding for stem cell research may not happen soon, but its clear that staunch opposition to the idea is softening. And this could be a great example of just-in-time politicking.

A week after a South Korean lab announced that it had successfully used human embryos to clone new stem cells, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation allowing limited funding for some types of stem cell research.

And while President George W. Bush has sworn to veto the bill, a measure similar to that enacted by the House is making its way through the Senate where it enjoys the support of, among others, Republicans like Orrin Hatch, a Mormon. Given the new spirit of moderation in the Senate, stem cell research may well get that bodys blessing as well.

Theres a lot of emotion around this issue on both sides. Proponents of more federal funding for research point to the devastating illnesses that could be cured or better understood through stem cell research. Opponents argue—as they did in a White House press conference Wednesday—that destroying human embryos, usually a necessary part of the research process, is murder. Both are passionate and neither seems ready to back down.

So were at an interesting juncture. The arguments on both sides have merit, but theyre sharply at odds. That doesnt mean both sides are right, of course. It just means they should be heard. So politicians have to make choices. Science and tech types might decry all the emotion-laden press conferences and briefings as beside the point. By the time this debate comes to an end, we may well be knee-deep in tearful over-wrought statements on both sides of the equation with nothing resolved and no compromise possible. Theres a way around this, however.

Stem cell research proponents should start comparing their efforts to the U.S. space program and start talking about support for what theyre doing in terms of economic and global competition. Make stem cell research a program thats both patriotic and necessary for the future, not just to cure disease but to fund and support much-needed scientific discoveries that will provide jobs.

This countrys belief that science, used correctly and wisely, could and should pave the way to a new, better world was a unique part of its post-World War II history, and it should be revived in this new age of global competition. Stem cells offer a cool new way to do that. The sentiments that made the U.S. space program wildly popular for a generation arent out of reach; for years this country was filled with little boys who wanted to be astronauts. Many of them are parents today.

In Silicon Valley the economic spillover from the space program is easy to spot and can serve as an example of what—and what not—to do. NASA/Ames labs, among others, recruited scientists to this part of the world. They stayed and developed much of the technology that make the Internet possible. In much the same way, the $3 billion stem cell ballot initiative passed overwhelmingly by the California voters last fall is attracting more and more scientists to the area. They may come for academic research, but chances are good theyll stay and discover other cool things.

That migration—from East Coast labs to California—is already providing a powerful demonstration of just how short-sighted it is to block all federal funding of stem cell research. Research and the jobs and smart people who go with it, follows the money. Whats happening in California is a snapshot of what could happen on a global scale: Science and scientists are leaving the United States. It shouldnt be hard to argue that keeping them here with a stem cell research program overseen by the government is patriotic.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about how stem cell research could help keep U.S. jobs.

Theres another argument, too. Without control of the research purse strings, the federal government has little oversight of stem cell research. That means theyre not really sure whats going on in the private labs that are doing the work. And they may not find out until its too late. In denying all funding and ignoring the idea of stem cell research, the government is trusting private industry to oversee itself and, well, theres plenty of evidence these days to show that doesnt work very well.

Thats not to say researchers have been cavalier about this. On the contrary. the American Academy for the Advancement of Science has been formulating guidelines.

But since the government isnt heavily involved this means there is no financial penalty—no check, in other words—for ducking the ethics. It has little reach into places where its already decided not to go. Now, its contrary to the thinking of most business and tech folks to demand regulation, but in this particular case it might make for very smart politics. Now imagine that: a controversial but promising program that demands to be regulated in exchange for some funding and oversight. It just might work.

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