Science, Tech & Environment

President Obama lifts ban on stem cell funding


Human embryonic stems cells (Image: thomtrance, Creative Commons)

President Barack Obama on Monday signed an executive order that many scientists around the globe were eagerly awaiting. The order lifts a federal ban on funding for embryonic stem cell research. That ban was put in place by President Bush eight years ago. Mr. Obama also vowed today that under his leadership, no scientific data will be concealed or distorted to serve a political agenda.

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On "The World," Stephen Minger, a senior lecturer in stem cell biology at Kings College, London, talks about the implications of the lifting of the U.S. ban on stem cell research. He says the new US policy should help improve the quality of stem cell research in this country: "The situation in the US is a) on the one hand, very incoherent in terms of regulation, ethics, state-to-state variability in terms of the law. And also, you know, I talk to the press constantly. I think I’ve given probably 25 interviews today, and I do this routinely. I know a number of American stem cell scientists who are basically gagged by their university. They cannot talk to the press. A lot of US stem cell researchers don’t want to publicly get up and say, 'I work with human embryonic stem cells' because they're fearful of the fallout from that. So it's a really different environment here than it is in the US."

Minger explains how the UK has dealt with the ethical issues around stem cell research: "Well, we believe in consultation here in a big way -- both public consultation as well as Parliamentary consultation. So for example, when my colleagues in New Castle and I decided to pursue inter-species cloning using non-human eggs because we thought it was inappropriate to try to acquire the thousands of human eggs that it requires to do this. You know, we approached the government and said, 'Look. We want to put this forward.' And the government first said, 'Well, we think we want to ban this' but then backed off and said, 'Well, let's talk about this.' And so we went through this kind of rational publicly open, unemotive discourse. And at the end of it, we came out with something everybody agreed was something that could be regulated, didn’t represent anything that ethically or morally created any new problems over and above the problem already of doing embryo research.

As for whether America has lost out scientifically because of the funding ban that’s been in place, Minger says: "Well, I would say that they haven't been able to keep pace nationally with what's happening here and what's happening in China and what's happening in India and other countries. I mean, I still think places like Harvard in California are competitive with the rest of the world. But in other places in the US I would say that’s not the case.

"The big shame has been that National Institutes of Health, which is by far the biggest supporter of biomedical research of any country in the world, has just not been engaged in this research. I think the pace of research would have gone faster, I think the field would have progressed much more rapidly because there would be so many more people involved in this. And I think Obama's executive order is hugely symbolic and it shows how strongly he feels about science. And I think America can catch up very quickly, but I still think that at the grass roots level in the red states, this is still a really contentious issue. And I don't think this executive order will change that."

According to Minger, the ban lift makes the US more attractive to researchers abroad: "There aren't that many American researchers abroad, really, to be honest with you. Most people have stuck it out in the US and either set up two parallel labs and used private funding to fund some of their work and IH money to fund some other bits, or they've just worked with the approved lines. I think what may happen is that a lot of young researchers in Europe may look at the US now differently and say, 'Well maybe this is where I should go to start out.' Because it’s very tight in Europe funding wise. It’s very competitive. And IH just has so much more funding available. So you know, I think this does change the stakes for all of us. I think it will fundamentally change the field."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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