"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance

 and a people who mean to be their own governors

 must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Monday, October 30, 2006

Funding Stem Cell Research

How much should the federal government spend on stem cell research? You’ve heard politicians say “I support stem cell research”, but have you heard any of them explain how much the government should spend? Have you heard any candidate give even a ballpark estimate of what should be spent, say, over the next two to five years? We haven’t.

But, let’s assume someone comes up with a nice round number and oodles of federal dollars are budgeted for the research. The next question - where are we going to spend it.? Obviously not in New Jersey.

According to Democrats, before the state can get into the stem research cell business New Jersey first needs to build three stem cell research facilities - one in New Brunswick, a second in Camden and a third in Newark. For some reason it hasn’t happened and it’s not a lack of money that’s stopped the construction projects. For the past two years the majority party in Trenton has found an extra $300 million plus in the budget for “Christmas Tree” grants - each project undoubtedly more important to achieving the greater good than research facilities.

So if millions, billions or trillions of additional federal dollars for stem cell research were made available tomorrow, New Jersey evidently lacks the faculties to do the work. Perhaps other states are better equipped to expand research, but it must be a closely guarded secret because the details have yet to emerge.

Then there is the matter of finding additional researchers with the expertise to effectively use any additional funding “in a field that already has a shortage of talent”. Stanford University stem cell scientist Irv Weissman, who played a key role in passing California’s 10-year, $3 billion stem cell research investment, is worried about funding being wasted.

Weissman is most concerned that the considerable monies available could lead to the wasting of funding on sub-par research. He advocates carrying the money forward until it can be well spent, perhaps on expensive clinical trials that are years away.
One thing is for certain, the federal government is not stopping scientists from conducting stem cell research. In fact, the United States is the world’s leader in the field, including research with embryonic stem cells. Contrary to what many people believe, the federal government currently funds the four major research types - human embryonic, non-human embryonic, human non-Embryonic and non-human non-embryonic. (See chart below for federal funding 1999-2006).

Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been restricted to lines that have already been created, but these federal restriction do not apply to research using private funds or to the research conducted in other countries. Yet, “more than 85 percent of all the published embryonic stem cell research in the world has used the lines approved for funding under the Bush policy”. It was the Bush policy that led to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research for the first time.

Every county engaged in embryonic stem cell research has regulations and restrictions– some countries are more restrictive than the U.S., some less. But all governments recognize there are moral and ethical implications to the research that must be addressed in the law and public policy. To label people wrestling with these ethical questions as “religious extremists” who oppose science and slam dunk cures is disingenuous at best.

Special interest groups and politicians have created such an emotionally charged atmosphere on this subject it’s nearly impossible to have a rational discussion about stem cell research. Listening to political ads and talk shows would leave most people with the impression that there is a cadre of “Bush Republicans” blocking cures for Michael J. Fox, children with diabetes and grandmothers with Alzheimer's. An objective presentation of the facts would dispel this “urban legend”, but political demagoguery rules the day.

The chart below shows federal funding for stem cell research from 1999 through 2006. You’ll notice it has doubled since 2001.

Click to Enlarge

Total stem cell research funding includes: Human Embryonic, Non-Human Embryonic, Human Non-Embryonic and Non-Human Non-Embryonic. *Subset of total stem cell research funding

Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – National Institutes of Health and Legislators Toolkit: Federal Public Policy




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