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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Keep the Focus on the Feds

With Congress set to reprise last year’s failure to override a presidential veto of stem cell legislation, there have been rumblings that stem cell activity is shifting to the states. It would be a mistake, however, to think state initiatives can replace robust research support from the federal government.

States lack the revenue, infrastructure, and incentives to properly promote stem cell research on their own, especially with federal policies that limit collaboration, impede their funding, and fail to provide regulatory guidelines. And the new political landscape means there is plenty of work to be done at the federal level. Our stem cell policy remains a national problem requiring a national solution.

There appears to be little chance of overturning President Bush’s expected veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. While the bill passed with broad, bipartisan support, it is still one vote short of a veto override in the Senate and thirty-seven votes short in the House. The chances of picking up the necessary votes are at best slim.

Meanwhile, states continue to be active in their support for stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cell research. Research restrictions have been lifted in Iowa, California continues to work out legal problems holding up funding, and New York has dedicated $600 million to stem cell research.

These efforts have not been lost on opponents of embryonic stem cell research who have argued that federal funding is not needed. In the recent Senate debate about the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, Sen. Grassley (R-IA) was quick to point out that an overhaul of the federal funding policy was not needed because “the private sector and state governments are doing a lot of embryonic stem cell research.”

The argument that states are now the primary drivers of research has also been echoed by some supporters of the research. Jim Fossett, co-director of the State and Bioethics program at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, recently declared that “states, not the federal government, matter” when it comes to stem cell research. But this reasoning ignores the incredible importance of federal funding and regulation to advancing stem cell research.

Despite the tremendous efforts by states to support the research, the federal government vastly outspends the states on all types of stem cell research. The National Institutes of Health provides 79.4 percent of public stem cell funding to date, and will contribute 70.8 percent through the duration of the state initiatives. NIH also outspends the states on embryonic stem cell research, providing 88 percent of funding for this research to date and 55 percent of funding through 2018.

Compounding the problem, the current federal policy forces states to waste money on new buildings and equipment because they cannot use federally funded infrastructure for federally ineligible research. California will spend $297.8 million to build “NIH-free” build­ings and New Jersey will be spending $275.5 million on new research centers across the state. States have spent only 15 percent of their funding on actual research, and will spend at least 29 percent of funding on non-research expenditures through 2018.

But lack of funding is not the only issue with allowing states to take the lead in stem cell research. Separate state initiatives will mean separate state regulations, potentially leading todivergent research standards that could slow collaboration between states. Research that is legal in one state may be illegal in another, and scientists will be further burdened with unnecessary bureaucracy.

States will also have difficulty coordinating research with each other, which could lead to overlap and waste. This problem will likely be exacerbated by competition between states, not only over researchers, but also over scientific breakthroughs. Eager to make good on promises of economic and medical benefits, states will likely look to research considered low-hanging fruit, and not the long-term basic research needed to move the field forward.

To truly advance embryonic stem cell research, we need greater federal investment and support. Even with all of the states’ efforts, public funding for embryonic stem cell research is only 20.6 percent of total public spending on the research, and only 29.4 percent of projected spending through 2018. State officials recognize the need as well, which is why Governors from Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin recently called on the Senate to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.

But, as with embryonic stem cells, the potential of the federal government to advance the science means little if it is not realized. Why should people remain concerned with the federal government when it seems to be as deadlocked as ever in the face of President Bush’s opposition?

The answer is that while it appears as if nothing has changed since last year, the facts on the ground are actually quite different. Embryonic stem cell research proved an important issue in the last election; 58 percent of the races in which it was an issue were won by the supporter of the research, including all the Senate races. Although still not enough to override a veto, the bill picked up 15 votes in the House and three votes in the Senate.

Stem cell supporters’ increased power in Congress gives them other means of passing legislation. The research has strong support in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Sens. Specter (R-PA) and Harkin (D-IA), the co-sponsors of the original bill, sit. They will thus have ample opportunity to loosen Bush’s restrictions by attaching provisions to must-pass legislation. And the House will also be much friendlier to efforts to pass this legislation in light of the recent election.

Supporters will also be able to bring up stem cell legislation repeatedly, and lawmakers may be loath to oppose it as the 2008 election approaches. Already, opponents of the research considered vulnerable are looking for compromises, including allowing research on non-viable embryos.

Sen. Harkin has been clear that he will use any and all methods to pass this legislation. After the vote, he was quoted as saying “If the president does veto this bill…then we will be back. Momentum is building. One way or another, we are going to lift these arbitrary restrictions this year.” Those words have been echoed by his counterpart in the House, Rep. DeGette (D-CO), who has promised that “If the President vetoes this bill we will use every legislative vehicle at our disposal to ensure this research is expanded.”

And further lost in all the talk of funding is the national government’s strong regulatory role. Although it has chosen not to exercise that ability, the federal government has tremendous potential to alter the scientific landscape. This Congress could potentially consider legislation on reproductive cloning, somatic cell nuclear transfer, chimeras, and other issues with direct relevance to stem cell research.

States have been providing impressive support for stem cell research, but it would be misguided to think the federal government is no longer the most important player in the field. The federal government still provides the most funding by far, has the most effective and wide-reaching regulatory structures, and has the greatest potential to shape the direction of the science. While states should continue to be encouraged in their efforts, stem cell advocates ignore the importance of the federal government at their own risk.

Published on: April 27, 2007
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Health Care Reform & Policy, Science and Society

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