Beyond Stem Cells

Microscopic 20x view of a colony of undifferentiated human embryonic stems cells. Photo credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison Photo credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Jeremy Manier

Suddenly George W. Bush is no longer the easiest target for anyone frustrated at the pace of scientific progress.

He started to occupy that position at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 9, 2001, when he went on national television to outline restrictions on federal funding for the new field of embryonic stem cell research. It seemed an arbitrary and even arrogant policy. No federal funds could be used for research on cell lines derived after the moment Bush began his speech – exactly 9:00:00 p.m. He portrayed the decision as a compromise – the original intention was to give no funds at all – but many researchers saw it as a fiat that would stifle a promising field and send a message that scientists served at the pleasure of the president. Science-related decisions in subsequent years tended to bear out that early impression.

Now there’s no obvious scapegoat for the obstacles facing researchers and patients eager for new treatments. President Obama has pledged to lift Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research, and to “put science back in its rightful place.” But we still don’t have a good sense of what that means.

This could be a rare opportunity to make a new strategy for American biomedical research. It would be a massive undertaking, centered on the sprawling National Institutes of Health, which currently lacks a permanent director. The $28 billion NIH budget supports 27 centers and institutes, and an army of researchers around the country.

A blog post last week by Stanford researcher Stephen Quake suggested that this is “the time to rethink the basic foundations of how science is funded.” He proposed more long-term grants to scientists and better incentives to pursue creative projects. The current system has some incentives for researchers to follow the agencies’ institutional priorities, rather than give reign to their best ideas.

My op-ed last Monday in the Chicago Tribune suggested creating a new NIH institute devoted to stem cell research. Yet some of the response to that piece reflected a widespread wariness of doing anything to complicate the federal research bureaucracy. My e-mail friend Yuval Levin, a National Review writer who worked in Bush’s domestic policy office, said that if anything the NIH needs a simpler management structure, not more institutes. He echoed Quake’s point that the current system doesn’t do enough to support younger investigators or new ideas.

In the short run, how Obama handles the NIH may be a better test of his managerial success than the outcome of the stimulus plan. It’s one thing to sign a piece of paper and reverse Bush’s stem-cell policy; it would be a much greater feat to free the awesome creativity of America’s scientists.

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