Obama is no champion of science


The scientists were jubilant, as men are when dividing the spoils.

On Monday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order making available federal funding for stem cell research that destroys human embryos. It was widely described, erroneously -- even on the front page of the Post -- as a reversal of George W. Bush's "ban" on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Bush never banned ESCR; it has always been legal in the United States to create and destroy human embryos in order to harvest their stem cells. Bush only prevented federal funding from being used for embryo-destructive research.

That should not have been a problem in a wealthy country that spends hundreds of millions to advertise Viagra. If ESCR was going to be the thaumaturgical wonder its proponents claimed, the gateway to cures for every malady known to man, then private funding should have been plentiful. A cure for Parkinson's (Michael J. Fox was enthusiastic), for spinal injuries (Obama spoke about the late Christopher Reeve), for Alzheimer's (Nancy Reagan agrees too) -- what Big Pharma company wouldn't invest in research that would yield such lucrative therapies?

Even without private funding, ESCR was not without public money. Bush's measure prevented federal funds, but some years back the then-as-now deeply indebted state of California floated a public bond issue to generate billions for embryo-destructive research. Other states followed.

Remember the heady days of 2004, when John Edwards promised that if John Kerry were elected president, Christopher Reeve would walk again? President Obama was less messianic on Monday, acknowledging the hundreds of millions of dollars he would shovel at ESCR may not bear fruit: "I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No president can promise that."

No indeed. There is a reason Obama didn't guarantee results. More to the point, there is a reason why private funding for ESCR is lacking. To date, ESCR has not produced any successful human therapies. Not one. Cures from embryodestructive research are not around the corner. They are not even in sight.

So what about all those stem cell wonders regularly reported? There have been hundreds of them, and all of them have come from adult stem cells -- stem cells taken not by destroying embryos, but from other sources, such as bone marrow or umbilical cords. There is no ethical problem. There are actual cures. That's the science.

Obama's stem cell policy is positively hostile to research that does not destroy embryos. It is perverse on the science, and disingenuous on the politics.

The science gets even better. Recent breakthroughs -- including one recently developed in Toronto -- mean that "pluripotent" stem cells (the type of stem cells embryos yield) can be created by reprogramming ordinary cells. "Pluripotent" refers to the potential of the stem cells to develop into a plurality of different tissues.

"This new method of generating stem cells does not require embryos as starting points and could be used to generate cells from many adult tissues, such as a patient's own skin cells," said Andras Nagy, senior investigator at Toronto's Mount Sinai Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute. Mount Sinai Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute

So the science is clear. Adult stem cells (which generally are not pluripotent) have already produced many successful human therapies. Embryonic stem cells have not. And if pluripotent stem cells are still desired, then they can now be produced without having to destroy embryos.

Yet despite the science and ethics increasingly being on the same side, namely against embryo-destructive research, Obama chose to go with politics. Indeed, while the President spoke at length about his funding announcement on Monday, he was curiously silent on another action he took at the same time. He reversed a Bush executive order from 2007 which directed funding toward adult stem cell research and reprogramming research -- that is, research that offers the same promise with no ethical objections. President Obama had no pretty words for that part of his policy. While presenting himself as a champion of science, he moved to reduce federal funds to stem cell research that is more promising than ESCR. Obama's stem cell policy is positively hostile to research that does not destroy embryos. It is perverse on the science, and disingenuous on the politics.

It's doubtful that pouring money into ESCR will lead to more rapid cures. What's not in doubt is that doing so has earned Obama the gratitude of laboratories desirous of easy money. The politician chose the politics, and the scientists took the money. No research prize for predicting that.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Obama is no champion of science." National Post, (Canada) March 12, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2009 National Post

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