Candidates who promised to advance stem cell research fared well in this month’s elections. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that stem cell therapy has “the biblical power to cure,” and others have touted public funding for stem cell research as key to finding cures for everything from Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis to hundreds of rare immune and genetic disorders.
Politicians are right that stem cells hold the promise of incredible medical progress. But we won’t achieve the promised results if we insist on public funding of the research. In fact, government-funded research has proved bureaucratic, expensive, wasteful, fickle and divisive. Since 2003, five states - Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut and California - have pledged billions of dollars to support stem cell research. But political opposition has prevented all but a few million dollars from reaching researchers. This year, six more states pledged funds - but none have paid up. In 2004, California voters approved Proposition 71, which provided $3 billion in public funds for stem cell research. Two years later, challenges to its constitutionality are still pending. Religious and taxpayer groups lost a first round in court, but their appeals, or any other state attempts to fund stem cell research, are likely to be tied up in court for at least another year.
Luckily for California, several private philanthropic organizations have loaned the state $14 million to start providing grants. This confirms the conclusions of a September 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., which found that when public funding for research lapses, private funders almost always step in to take up the slack, often funding projects at a higher rate than did the government.
Other states have had similar experiences. The Ohio governor earmarked $19.4 million for Case Western University for stem cell research, but the Legislature banned it. Funds pledged by Illinois and New Jersey - $10 million and $5 million, respectively - are tied up in legislative limbo because politicians can’t agree on what types of stem cell research should be funded and where the money should come from. Only one state got it right: Missouri. This month, voters passed a ballot initiative amending the Missouri Constitution to protect the right to pursue and benefit from any stem cell research or therapies allowed under federal law or available to other Americans. Government funding was not the issue; it was the need to guarantee that research could proceed without political interference. The Stowers Institute for Medical Research was standing by with $2 billion in funding. Once the amendment passed, research began within days.
Such private funders are also more efficient than government at doling out research money. After paying administrative costs and interest on the bonds that will have to be issued, Californians will end up forking over more than $6 billion for less than $2.8 billion for stem cell research.
To be sure, private organizations attach strings. Many want access to lab financial records, and some discontinue funding if dissatisfied with how research is conducted. But such accountability is important in research. And when stem cell research is not a political football, less time and money is wasted on campaigns, bureaucracy and litigation. More important, those who object to the research aren’t forced to fund it.
The development of in vitro fertilization provides a perfect model. For years, researchers lobbied government to fund IVF, but amid Luddite cries that “test-tube babies” would lead to societal ruin, funding was denied at every turn. As a result, the federal government didn’t spend a cent on the development of IVF. Scientists complained that there would be a brain drain away from the U.S. to countries where such research was publicly funded, and that the U.S. would fall behind in the development of new reproductive technologies. None of these gloomy predictions came true. Today, infertility treatment is a $16-billion-a-year industry in the United States.
The stem cell debate evokes déjà vu. Geron Corp. has already invested twice as much in stem cell research as the federal government, and Harvard University has received more requests for money to fund such research than the National Institutes of Health. Some estimate that the stem cell industry will amount to $10 billion by 2010.
Stem cells hold more promise than any breakthrough since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. But governments should not make promises that they cannot keep due to political opposition and their own inefficiency. The false hope that the government is taking care of stem cell research will only inhibit private donors and investors from stepping up to the plate.
We should legalize stem cell research in all its forms, protecting universities and private organizations from the uncertainties of political whims - and leave it at that.