When President Barack Obama lifted the ban on US federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on 9 March, he did more than make a symbolic gesture in favour of advancing science; and he did more than take a step towards long-touted (if not guaranteed) disease cures. His statement had immediate economic repercussions. In the near term, there is little chance that freeing up the research will bring cures — but there is reason to believe the move will bring near-term jobs and investment.

Obama said the administration of George W. Bush had forced a “false choice between sound science and moral values”. Science and morality are not inconsistent in this case, he argued, saying that embryonic stem-cell research is part of a humane effort to relieve human suffering. The president went on to imply that lifting the ban is part of a larger plan to give scientists the support they deserve. Scientists should be shielded from unnecessary political influence so that they can do their jobs “free from manipulation or coercion”.

The decision, however, is also about winning the war for top scientific talent. California's efforts to do so are well known: its US$3-billion stem-cell initiative, although struggling of late because of the state's budget woes, has attracted some accomplished biologists. Other states have tried to follow suit, although they may now scale back their own funding programmes to make way for government funding (see Nature 458, 130–131; 2009). Countries from South Korea to the United Kingdom to Australia have pursued not only the research results, but the researchers as well.

Obama did note the upshot of scant government support. “Promising avenues go unexplored,” he said. “Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.” Obama's announcement intensifies the race for cures and reaffirms support for a field. It also raises the stakes in the race to find the best stem-cell biologists on the planet.