The sometimes arduous effort that went toward securing and distributing state government funds for broader stem cell work should be lauded, not lamented.
Which world leader reacted to the publication of a ground-breaking stem cell paper from a scientist in his country by lobbying the national science funding body to increase the yearly stem cell research budget from US$2.5 million to over US$20 million?
Few who tracked the trends of US biomedical science funding during the past eight years would be surprised to know that it was not George W. Bush. It was Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda who, within a month of the publication of the 2008 Cell paper by the group of Shinya Yamanaka, secured generous financial support for Japan's stem cell researchers.
Heeding the advice of religious ideologues during his two terms in office, President Bush stifled rather than stoked the pace of US stem cell research. Citing ethical concerns, in 2001 Bush decreed that only already existing stem cell lines were eligible for federal research funding. Ignoring the widespread view that many of these cell lines had defects so serious as to render them unusable, Bush twice used his veto power to quash subsequent bills aimed at expanding federal funding to include work on frozen human embryos, which would otherwise be discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics and could instead be used to generate new improved stem cell lines.
Rather than discontinue stem cell work or restrict their experiments to defunct stem cell lines, many US researchers secured private funding for experiments involving human embryos or new stem cell lines. However, others chose to depart for foreign lands more supportive—financially and politically—of stem cell work, such as Singapore, which lured standout US stem cell researchers including Neal Copeland, Nancy Jenkins and Edison Liu Tak-Bun from the National Institutes of Health and Roger Pedersen from the University of California at San Francisco.
Fortunately, many states' politicians faced with the emigration of top researchers and welling public opposition to Bush's policies used the past seven years to devise and implement measures to provide less-restricted state funding for stem cell research. Seven states (California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland) now offer government funds for stem cell work done within their borders. Voters in an eighth state, New Jersey, approved some but not all stem cell–funding bills offered on state ballots. Perhaps not coincidentally, all eight of these municipalities are 'blue states', where Democratic candidates defeated George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
Efforts needed to secure these funds took time and resources and, in some states, sparked ethical and economic controversy. As Barack Obama and John McCain, the presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, both spoke out in support of expanded federal funding for stem cell research during the presidential primary race (http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080102/full/451004a.html), some wondered if time and resources devoted to state stem cell bills were spent in vain. Much of the state funding became available to scientists only this year. Was it worth it if scientists could have simply have waited one more year until the inauguration of a new stem cell–friendly president? Many indicators suggest that the states' efforts were not for naught.
First, the candidates now appear to differ in the extent of their support for government funding of stem cell work. In contrast to Barack Obama, whose website has consistently pledged support for expanded government funding of embryonic stem cell research, John McCain's campaign website presents a decidedly less enthusiastic view of embryonic stem cell work. At the time of writing of this editorial, the “Human Dignity and Sanctity of Life” section of the McCain website—which, discouragingly, lacks any section devoted to 'science' or 'technology'—pledges support for funding of “amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.” Although vague in many ways, the wording of this passage is clear on the fact that an end to the restrictions on US federal funding for stem cell research after the January 2009 presidential inauguration is hardly a sure thing.
Second, state funding, together with substantial private donations explicitly earmarked for stem cell work, may vastly exceed whatever federal funds might have been available for broader stem cell research had Bush not withheld them. As the research budget of the National Institutes of Health as a whole failed to keep pace with inflation during most of Bush's time in office, there is little reason to believe National Institutes of Health funds allocated for stem cell work would have been particularly generous. Thus, ironically, by stoking the furor of 'blue state' residents and their celebrities, Bush's restrictions may have ultimately resulted in an opening of the spigot of private and state funding far beyond what would have been the case had less-restrictive federal funds been made available.
Third, provision of state funding for expanded stem cell research may have stemmed the tide of US researchers departing for nations more supportive of stem cell work. In 2007, the California Stem Cell Report published a list of almost 50 stem cell scientists that had moved to California since the passage of Proposition 71, its state stem cell–funding bill, in 2005. Had state funding not been available, many of these scientists might have crossed national rather than state borders in an effort to secure less-restrictive funds for their work.
Yes, money earmarked for stem cell funding could have been used for other projects benefiting the residents of the eight states whose governments passed bills funding stem cell research. Yes, efforts to distribute state funds for stem cell research sparked costly legal battles in some states, including California and New Jersey. But is there reason to believe it was a mistake for state governments to step in and devote resources to support work within their borders? It is Nature Immunology's opinion that the resounding answer is no.