Self-deception is part of being a modern Homo sapiens. We shun the seasonality of unadventurous local produce yet are surprised that the constancy of exotic fruits and vegetables comes at a cost measured in fuel use and environmental damage. We crave affordable running shoes, but rail at capitalist structures built on teenage sweatshops. Meat eaters rarely consider the abattoir when their knives cut the succulent filet.
In science, the “Nike paradox” thrives. Indeed, it is legally enshrined. One current example involves government attitudes to human embryonic stem (ES) cells. In the US, for instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to be able to fund researchers to work on human ES cells, but it also seems to want to detach itself from the origins of those cells in aborted embryos. The influence of antiabortion, “pro-life” groups has meant that for the past 20 years US federal policy has prohibited all funding of research on human fetal tissue and embryos. No such constraints exist for private companies.
Presently, various scientific bodies are going through all kinds of contortions to try to move the situation forward. NIH, for instance, believes it is already entitled to fund human pluripotent stem cell research. Last year, Harriet Rabb, general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services, reexamined the legal position and concluded that the statutory prohibition on federally funded embryo research did not apply to stem cell studies. Thus armed, former NIH director Harold Varmus announced that NIH funds would be made available for ES cell research.
However, federal researchers are still forbidden from working on embryos and, like the anatomists of the 19th century, will have to buy the stem cells from privately funded companies, who do the “dirty work.” Apparently, neither the NIH nor the American Association for the Advancement of Science has any problems with this double standard, even though research in the private sector is hidden from the rigors of federal oversight or external scrutiny, and is often unverified by peer review and publication.
The US Stem Cell Research Act of 2000 (S. 2015) is slated for imminent debate on the floor of the US Senate. Importantly, this bill not only sanctions funding of ES cells, but also their derivation from embryos that otherwise would be discarded. We fully support this bill and urge the community to prevail upon politicians to ensure that it is passed. Failing that, the NIH must stand up and strenuously lobby for funding to be made available for deriving stem cells as well as studying them.