Thursday, May 26, 2005

The stem cell nonsense 

Paul Mirengoff of Power Line gives voice to the ambivalence that many conservatives feel about embryonic stem cell research.
President Bush has said that he will veto legislation Congress is likely to pass calling for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on stem cell lines other than those previously approved by the administration. It would be the first time Bush has used his veto power.

This issue divides conservatives and it's easy for me to see why, since I'm of two minds about it myself. On balance, while I admire Bush for taking a principled stand on the issue, I tend to think he's taken the wrong stand.

I agree. If I had a chance to direct investment in embryonic stem cell research, I would do so. But Mirengoff is falling into a trap that the Democrats have set. This debate is not -- as the Democrats and the MSM contend -- a struggle between religious moralists who want to ban embryonic stem cell research and seekers of truth who want to save humanity from devestating pathologies. Stem cell research will not be stopped. It is happening all over the place, with federal funds on the grandfathered lines, with state funds in New Jersey and California, without restriction in the private sector, and in many other scientifically advanced countries of the world. No disease will go uncured -- at least not in the long run -- because the government of the United States does not fund stem cell research.

No. This argument is about convenience for a few American university professors. They want to be able to experiment with embryonic stem cells without soiling themselves in the for-profit sector or moving to a foreign country. Never mind that they could save the world from a lab in a British university or an American biotech company -- they only want to do their work if they can do it in the comfort of federally subsidized laboratories in American universities, not caring that the subsidy itself is deeply offensive to millions of people.

That the mainstream media has taken up the cause of these professors as if it were anything other than self-serving says a great deal about the contempt that the elite press has for religious people.

UPDATE: Daniel Gottesman argues against the position I've taken in this post in an interesting comment.


By Anonymous Steve Bragg, at Thu May 26, 10:31:00 PM:


If your view is really that of the pragmatist, then the smart money's on adult stem cells, from your own body, not embryonic stem cells from killed human embryos. Embryonic stem cell cultures have well known problems (tumors, erratic growth, etc., I'm not a biologist) that the adult stem cells don't have.

Why expend this much political energy over something that's less likely to produce cures? If it's cures we want, we should be pouring public money into adult cells, with which "religious moralists" won't even quibble. Why waste public money on anything less than the best shot?


By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu May 26, 10:39:00 PM:


Well, I am against funding embryonic stem cell research with public funds, but only because it is obviously so troubling to so many people. I think it will get funded anyway, so I don't think we are giving up much.

I do, however, disagree with your last point. Public money is most appropriately used to do research that is both promising and likely to fail. This is because private sector money is much more available for projects that have a high likelihood of success. The point of the public money is to fill funding gaps in the private sector. To me this is a far less "wasteful" use of public money than spending it on research with a high likelihood of success, because the private sector will take care of those projects.  

By Anonymous Steve Bragg, at Thu May 26, 10:59:00 PM:


I see your point about research done with public money. But people like Ron Reagan argue for ESCR on the supposed merit that it will bring cures, NOT on the view you specified, that it should be done as scientific research for its own sake. Consequently, in my comments I was responding to the utilitarian argument for ESCR, not to the use of public monies for research in general. On Ron Reagan's view in particular, and the utilitarian argument generally, ESCR is a losing proposition. That's all I was driving at.

And as always, I read your blog every day and enjoy it.. Keep up the good work.  

By Blogger geoffrobinson, at Fri May 27, 08:38:00 AM:

I would have to add to Steve that there is something weird going on. There seems to be an aversion to trying non-baby destroying paths. Weird.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri May 27, 09:13:00 AM:


I think that last comment was a little strong, both on the rhetoric and ont he substance. Rhetorically, I think it is hard to call fertilized eggs in a dish with no possibility for gestation "babies". I am prepared to accept that they are human life in one of its myriad forms, but they are not by any reckoning "babies."

Substantively, there is a tremendous amount of work being done in all these areas. I have a friend at the University of Michigan who is fairly plugged in on all this stuff, and she maintains quite soberly that embryonic stem cells have certain potential that alternatives do not have.

In any case, I do not think that it is fruitful for religious people to argue about the science, because in doing that they are retreating to utilitarianism. On that battlefield, people of faith will almost always lose.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri May 27, 09:51:00 AM:

I think you seriously underestimate the role of the US federal government in funding basic research. Frequently university labs in the US will piece together their funding from a number of different grants for a variety of different projects, and almost always at least one comes from the US government. If a lab wants to work on stem cell research which would be banned under US government policy, it needs to establish a strict separation between the stem cell project and other projects, so a piece of equipment bought with federal money doesn't get used on the banned project. A mistake could result in losing all federal funds, essentially shutting down the lab. Most scientists aren't willing to risk that, so either they work within the restrictions or leave for industry or another country, as you suggest. Possibly state funding will be able to pick up the difference, but it is generally much smaller than federal research funding. California's new initiative is an exception, but it is also new, so it remains to be seen how it works out.

So what's wrong (from a scientific perspective) with having stem cell research done exclusively at industrial labs and in other countries? Among other things, it severely disrupts the lifecycle of scientists. While it is certainly possible to get a Ph.D. in a related area and switch to stem cell research, most scientists continue working on things pretty similar to what they did during their Ph.D. If you shut off (or as in this case, severely limit) university research on stem cells, you will pretty substantially cut down on the number of students who get into stem cell research; you are also cutting down the number of postdocs who can do stem cell research, and ultimately, therefore, the number of researchers with experience in stem cells. This is even true globally, not just in the US, since many foreign scientists (particularly the best ones) get a Ph.D. and/or postdoc positions in the US.

In some sense you're right -- there is enough interest in the potential of stem cells that the research will get done somewhere, sooner or later, but without funding from the US government, it will be "later," possibly much later.

Daniel Gottesman  

By Blogger Counter Trey, at Fri May 27, 12:45:00 PM:

To paraphrase Milton Friedman:

"...no cure for any disease...has ever come from government..."  

By Blogger geoffrobinson, at Fri May 27, 12:55:00 PM:

I would agree with non-fertilized eggs, but I think the general comment holds. There seems to be an aversion to go down other paths. I think some, some, want to use this for the greater pro-choice good.

Akin, to how pro-lifers use partial-birth abortion.

There is an aversion to using adult stem cells. And that's the best explanation I can come up with. Abortion, not cures for diseases, seem to be the main driver for those.  

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