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Barack, can you spare a dime?

American stem cell scientists expected a river of gold to flow into their labs after Obama's election. It hasn't happened.
Michaela Kingston | 23 April 2010
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Science is objective. Therefore, scientists are objective, right? Being a scientist myself, I wish I could agree, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t be very objective of me. Truth be told, I’m biased and so is every other scientist on this planet -- and every other human being, for that matter. Yes, journalists, too, but you probably already knew that. Being biased isn’t a great problem as long as we’re aware of our biases and try not to let them blind us to the truth.

Unfortunately, many biases have been given way too much sway in the human embryonic stem cell (hESC) debate.

The conventional view is that hESC research used to be funded by the US Federal government until George W. Bush came along. He was the antichrist for the scientific establishment, banning and defunding good research left and right. After enduring eight years of Bush’s tyranny, during which the National Institutes of Health and all of American science was being strangled, hope was rekindled with the election of Barack Obama.

American scientists did not have to wait long for grand gestures. Less than two months after his inauguration, Mr Obama issued an executive order “removing [Bush’s] barriers to responsible scientific research involving human stem cells” and “directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making”. Finally, scientists thought, we had a man at the helm who knew how to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology”. Finally we had a president who would open the floodgates of government funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but the Obama administration, confounding both friends and foes, has been more miserly with stem cell research than its predecessor. Here are the myths and the facts.

Myth 1: Bush banned federal funding of hESC research. (Some people even thought that he outlawed the research itself.)

Supporting evidence:

(1) from President Obama’s address on March 9, 2009: “we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.”

(2) from the media: “President Obama lifted the eight-year-old ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research yesterday…” – Washington Post, March 10, 2009

(3) from progressive websites: “With the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama today erased the Bush administration’s eight-year-old restrictions on federal funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells, reaffirming his commitment to evidence and biomedical hope over his predecessor’s ideological distortion of science.” – Science Progress

(4) from bioethicists: "After eight years of zero-budget funding of embryonic stem cell research, it is hardly fair and completely disingenuous for critics to point to the practice and wonder why it lags four decades behind government-funded adult stem cell research," -- Art Caplan, University of Pennsylvania

Fact 1: Bush was the first to initiate the federal funding of hESC research.

Human ESCs were only discovered in 1998, at the tail-end of Clinton’s presidency. Most scientific discoveries don’t land on the president’s desk, but this one was quite exciting. It deserved federal funding. But federal funding was prohibited for research involving the destruction of human embryos, thanks to the Dickey-Wicker amendment. So Clinton found a loophole which provided that hESC research could be funded as long as the stem cells were extracted (and the embryos killed) by someone else, with private money. Once an ESC colony of cells was generated, federal funds could be used to study them.

Luckily, Clinton left office before those guidelines could be put into place. So the issue was inherited by Bush. On August 9, 2001, he announced a controversial compromise. Like Clinton, he decided that if someone else harvested the hESCs, that was OK. Unlike Clinton, he didn’t want his policy to encourage further destruction of embryos, so he prohibited federal funding of research on hESCs generated from embryos killed from that day forward. Notice that there was no hESC funding under Clinton. Notice, too, that Bush did not prohibit hESC research nor did he prohibit federal funding for hESC research.

Instead, Bush was the first president to fund human embryonic stem cell research. His highly political compromise should have outraged pro-life conservatives more than it did and should have pleased liberals more than it did. My guess is that Bush didn’t defend himself by reminding us that he had been the first to provide federal funds for hESC research because this would have angered his conservative base.

Myth 2: Bush was a foe of science and stem cell research.

Supporting evidence:

(1) The signing of Obama’s executive order was “a momentous occasion for anyone who believes in the pursuit of biomedical knowledge for the betterment of human health." -- Harvard Stem Cell Institute researcher George Daley.

(2) "This marks a new era for stem cell research. It will not only impact research in the laboratory, but perhaps more importantly, it finally lifts the black cloud that has hovered over this research for so long. We have been operating for the last decade with one hand tied behind our back," -- Robert Lanza, science director of Advanced Cell Technologies.

(3) “Bush’s approach to the issue of embryonic stem cell research… showed a deep disregard for the role of scientific information in political decision-making.” -- Chris Mooney, The Republican War On Science

Fact 2: The NIH stem cell budget grew by leaps and bounds under Bush.

The total NIH budget grew from $17.8 to $30.2 billion under Bush’s watch. Here is a graph showing stem cell funding data (key below) for the last several years from an NIH report. Besides the obvious upward trend during the Bush years, and the general plateau of Obama’s numbers, I’d like to point out one other thing. In 2006, Japanese scientists discovered that, by turning on four special genes, they could make an ordinary skin cell act like an ESC. They called them “induced pluripotent stem cells”. It was a major scientific breakthrough.

Maybe more importantly, it was a major moral breakthrough. Here was an ethical alternative to hESCs that was even more exciting than adult stem cells! Accordingly, Bush issued another executive order (June 20, 2007, indicated by arrow #1) mandating the Department of Health and Human Services to enhance the funding of research on “alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells”. This explains the $71 million increase in human adult stem cell funding and the $97 million increase in non-human adult stem cell funding from fiscal year 2007 to 2008. By the way, then-Senator Obama voted against this increase when it was set before him as the “HOPE Act”.

Myth 3: President Obama has greatly increased funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Supporting evidence:

(1) “The order was issued just in time for researchers to take advantage of money in Mr. Obama's economic recovery package and use it for stem cell studies.” - NYTimes

(2) “The President's [March 9, 2009] decision does much more than expand funding for stem-cell research. It heralds a shift in the government's view of science, ushering in an era in which it promises to defend science — and the pursuit of useful treatments — against ideology.” – Time, March 9, 2009

Fact 3: Stem cell scientists are still waiting for the river of gold. Even though Obama removed Bush’s restrictions on federal funds for hESC research, he has barely increased the hESC budget.

While Bush’s 2007 executive order was followed by an increase in funding (arrow #1), President Obama’s order (arrow #2) has yet to yield funding increases to match his reputation. The increases seen are entirely due to the stimulus package, which delivers $10.4 billion to the NIH over two years. Not bad, except that Obama can’t take credit for it. Apparently that was all Senator Arlen Specter’s doing.

Obama hasn’t put his money where his mouth is. No matter how many additional stem cell lines are approved, the federal funding available for studying them is at the same level it was at under Bush. We seem to have swapped a Republican war on science for a Democrat starvation of science.

Now here’s the odd thing. We’re not hearing cries of fury and outrage at the frustration of dreams of an era of richly-funded science. Have stem cell scientists not noticed? Doubtful. Maybe they are too busy complaining that the new ethical restrictions (mostly informed consent requirements) that their own NIH developed are too burdensome? In any case, though, it seems time for someone to alert the press about the continued inadequacy of federal funding for hESC research, American scientists have zippered their lips.

If they’re hurting, why don’t they cry for help? If they’re poor, why don’t they rattle the cup? Did they leave their objectivity at the door as they entered the political arena? Maybe they are just too politically committed to embarrass the man who brought hope, but not money, to American science.

Michaela Kingston is a nom de plume for an American scientist who holds a PhD in stem cell science from Johns Hopkins University.  She is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore where she is fulfilling her goal of science education of the public.

Key to graph

Graph showing trends in the federal funding of stem cell research in the United States since 2007. Arrow 1 represents Bush’s executive order of June 20, 2007.  Arrow 2 represents Obama’s executive order of Mar 9, 2009.  h = human, m = mouse and all other non-human animals, ESC = embryonic stem cells, ASC = adult stem cells and all other non-embryonic stem cells, except those in the UBC category and including iPS cells, UBC = umbilical cord blood and placental stem cells, from humans and animals, ARRA = American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, “+ARRA” data shows regular funding levels plus what was added by ARRA.  Inflation not taken into account.

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