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Stem cell order tests science-politics relationship

Democrats charged during the Bush administration that science research became politicized. Obama's presidential memorandum signed this week promises to avoid that pitfall. Will it work?

President Obama's decision to allow federal tax dollars to be used with embryonic stem cell research does more than reverse his predecessor's policies and fulfill a long-standing campaign promise. It also reopens the debate about how well science and politics can, or should, mix.

On Monday, Obama signed an executive order allowing research on more stem cell lines than the Bush administration had permitted in its political compromise eight years ago.

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources, it's also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama said. He added that such research must be subject to strict guidelines, and "we will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted."

Some representatives of the biotechnology industry praised Obama's decision, saying it will do more than provide additional funding--it could also stimulate private investment by giving the market more confidence in the field.

The world of private financing has largely dried up, said Michael Werner, an attorney for Holland & Knight who represents stem cell companies and is a founding board member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. Obama's decision may change that, he said.

But critics and skeptics of Obama's decision say that injecting taxpayer dollars into a delicate and already controversial scientific process could backfire. Obama's decision to make stem cell research scientifically worthy of federal tax dollars is as much of a politically subjective decision as Bush's choice not to, they say.

In addition, it's difficult for companies to make long-term plans about funding because Obama's successor could reverse this decision yet again, a situation that economist Robert Higgs has dubbed "regime uncertainty." Or Congress could overrule him with yet another set of rules.

Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in health care reform, said permitting more tax dollars to be spent on scientific research will only complicate the field.

"It is inevitable that when you get federal money involved, you politicize the issue," Tanner said. "I worry that it comes at the expense of sound science. I don't think you can say somehow the Obama administration is going to be a blank slate when it comes to science. Is the Obama administration really going to be open to a study that shows there is no global warming?"

Research manipulation
In the case of global warming, both sides have accused the other of manipulating research findings to reach political ends. The late author Michael Crichton described this in his book State of Fear, concluding with an essay saying: "Groups with other agendas are hiding behind a movement that appears high-minded... (and) vague terms like sustainability and generational justice--terms that have no agreed definition--are employed in the service of a new crisis."

During the Bush administration, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona accused his bosses of political interference, and House Democrats released a report in 2003 accusing the administration of manipulating science related to wetlands, stem cells, missile defense, and sex education. (Bush aides say that, contrary to that claim about stem cell research, they acted after consulting scientists. Also, the previous policy merely restricted taxpayer funds being spent on this purpose; private companies could continue to pursue research without hindrance.)

An extreme example was the Soviet Union, which suppressed genetic research in favor of the pseudoscience known as Lysenkoism.

There's no evidence
to suggest you need
federal money to make
this research work.
--Michael Tanner,
senior fellow,
Cato Institute

For its part, the current administration has tried to distance itself from any appearance of impropriety. On Monday, Obama also signed a presidential memorandum saying: "Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the federal government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public."

The executive order that Obama signed overturns restrictions President Bush instituted in 2001 that limited federal funding to 21 existing stem cell lines. The National Institutes of Health will have 120 days to develop guidelines for evaluating funding requests.

"What's interesting is that in the early part of this decade, when stem cell research was under scrutiny by folks in Washington, a lot of companies felt it impacted the private markets because there was a sort of cloud over it," said Werner, the attorney representing stem cell companies. "The private markets kind of responded to the sense that maybe this is gong to be outlawed, maybe there is something wrong with this research. What will be interesting to see is whether the same would be true now that there will be such a shot in the arm from the administration for this research."

The United States has the proper policies to bring research to the marketplace, such as protections for intellectual property, Werner said, but without a federal commitment to basic research in a scientific area, it will be harder to bring ideas to market. In the area of stem cell research, a lack of federal support may impact the development of regenerative medicine and therapies, which Werner called "the new paradigm of health care moving forward."

"When it gets down to approval from the FDA, they'll be more likely to do that when there's a body of research out there," he said. "Anything that adds that knowledge to the public space will be a huge help to adding technologies to this industry. We know how to promote and support biomedical research--we just didn't do it in this area."'

More money equals results?
Scientific arguments over the use of adult stem cells vs. embryonic stem cells, as well as claims of potential applications for the research, have been distorted in attempts to win the political debate, said the Cato Institute's Tanner.

Moreover, it is questionable whether public funds will accomplish anything the private sector has not or cannot, Tanner said.

"Scientists always want more money, but the evidence to suggest there's a line of research not being done right now because of a lack of federal money--I've never had anybody able to show me that," he said.

The in vitro fertilization industry has thrived on private capital, Tanner said.

"There's no evidence to suggest you need federal money to make this research work," he said.

Lifting these restrictions
will free up all of these
resources in the scientific
--Richard Garr,
CEO, Neuralstem

Richard Garr, president and CEO of Neuralstem, a company working to develop a stem cell therapy for Lou Gehrig's disease, acknowledged there may or may not be new technologies that emerge from additional funding resources.

"The thing about basic research is, it's kind of like shooting an arrow and putting the target where it lands," he said.

Still, Garr said, the research that will this executive order will facilitate includes basic research as well as work on products in the late stages of development. The federal funding will largely go to universities and public research institutions rather than the private sector, but companies like Garr's invest in those projects. Garr's Neuralstem, for instance, pays for research being conducted at the University of California at San Diego.

"To the extent that the infrastructure is there and universities are staffed up, that affects private companies," Garr said.

Restricting federal funding to certain stem cell lines complicated the way universities had to conduct their research, he said, since federally funded projects would not be confused with other projects. The initial funds from California's Proposition 71--which passed in 2004, allocating $3 billion for human embryonic stem-cell experiments--were spent on real estate.

"You literally couldn't do research in the same labs for approved lines and unapproved lines," Garr said. "Lifting these restrictions will free up all of these resources in the scientific community."

While states like California stepped in to fund projects that the federal government would not, private sources did as well. Major companies like Aastrom, Geron Corp., and Stemcells, Inc. all increased their research and development expenditures on stem cell research from 2005 through 2007, according to a 2008 analysis (PDF) from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Even if the economy continues to stall for months, private capital for worthy projects will be available in the long term, Tanner said.

"We're talking about research that's not going to see fruition for years," he said. "Whether or not there's a great deal of investment capital this year is not a great concern."

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report