Monday, February 09, 2009

Embryonic Step Forward

While we debate the merits of the stimulus package and which group of partisans is more partisan, let's not overlook certain obvious and clear benefits of replacing Bush with Obama. Under Bush, the U.S. government refused to fund embryonic stem cell research, "one of the world's most promising medical technologies," according to The Economist.
Obama has yet to make this official, but word is out that an executive order lifting the ban is forthcoming. This is not only a no-brainer for the advancement of medical science, but for the long-term competitiveness of the United States — a topic which will be a focus of this blog (or at least this writer). As The Economist puts it, "American academics will no longer have to watch enviously from the sidelines as their colleagues in Australia, Britain, China, the Czech Republic, Israel, Singapore, and South Korea push ahead." The United States has been at the forefront of medical research for a century, and it must be a top priority of any American administration to maintain — and improve upon — this position.

Bush apologists will point out that the Administration only withheld funding and did not ban any research practices, that for that matter not all stem-cell research was subject to the funding ban, that embryonic stem cells pose risks, that stem-cell research is is unproven at this point, and that opening up funding for one type of research will no doubt reduce funding for others. All true, but let's acknowledge here that the best way to push science forward is to let scientists pursue the most promising paths forward without government getting in the way. Moreover, because the funding ban required researchers to compartmentalize all grant expenditures away from stem-cell research — for example, stem-cell researchers could not use devices or materials bought with grant money for other purposes — the restriction added a layer of bureaucracy that made even privately-funded stem-cell research a costly and burdensome proposition.

To be fair, one of John McCain's signature maverick positions was to oppose Bush on his ban, and Obama overstated the difference between his and McCain's positions. But who knows if a President McCain would have had to appease the Palin crowd on this one?

Anyway, we're still waiting for the order, but this is a step forward. Hopefully tough financial times will not cause the new President to balk in his stated support of science and that he'll recognize how critical maintaining our lead in scientific research is to our long-term competitiveness. There is no country in the world that can innovate the way America can — at least for now — but other countries are eager to catch up. As India, China, and others begin to develop better institutions of higher education and promote technology centers, the incentive for those countries' leading minds to stay home will grow. The United States must do everything it can to continue to attract the brightest scientists and innovators from around the world — it's the surest way to maintain our long-term scientific and economic leadership.

This is one of the great disasters of the Bush Administration. Not only did he cut off the funding by executive fiat — he subsequently vetoed a funding bill that had substantial bipartisan support.

(Remarkably, Bush defended his veto by stating that "Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical — and it is not the only option before us." This from the man who threw thousands of lives and billions of dollars behind the proposition of elective, preemptive war.)

There was talk that Obama might duck the issue and simply defer the matter to Congress, with the expectation that they could muster another bill like the one Bush vetoed. Let's hope he doesn't go that route. Bush invoked executive authority to turn off the funding faucet; Obama is at the very least empowered to turn it back on.

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