Thursday, September 2, 2010

Get the Government Out of the Business of Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

As is so often the case, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe hits the nail on the head, asking why taxpayers should be forced to fund embryonic stem-cell research. The moral issues in this debate are very important, to be sure, but Jacoby's column takes a different approach and uses economic arguments to thoroughly debunk those who claimed that taxpayer funding is the only hope for people suffering from a wide range of ailments. After all, if stem-cell research is expected to yield medical miracles, it should go without saying that the private sector will jump in with both feet. Which is exactly what has happened.
James Thomson, an embryologist at the University of Wisconsin, cultivated the first embryonic stem cell lines in 1998. By then the prohibition on using federal funds for scientific research in which human embryos are destroyed was already on the books; President Bill Clinton had signed it nearly three years earlier. So how did Thomson secure a government grant to finance his landmark achievement? He didn’t. His work was funded by the Geron Corporation, a California biotechnology company that develops treatments for cancer, spinal cord injuries, and degenerative diseases. ...this a good moment to ask a threshold question: Why should the federal government be funding controversial medical research in the first place? As Thomson’s 1998 discovery proved, pathbreaking accomplishments in stem-cell science are possible even when the government isn’t footing the bill. That was no anomaly. If the feds didn’t fund the search for embryonic stem-cell therapies, the private sector would. ...For-profit corporations and their shareholders aren’t the only source of private-sector stem-cell funding. The Washington Post reported in 2006 on the private philanthropy that was building new stem-cell labs in academia. “Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad gave $25 million to the University of Southern California for a stem cell institute, sound-technology pioneer Ray Dolby gave $16 million to the University of California at San Francisco, and local donors are contributing to a $75 million expansion at the University of California at Davis. . . Early this year, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg quietly donated $100 million to Johns Hopkins University, largely for stem-cell research.’’ ...Imagine those that would do so if the federal government stopped underwriting research that so many taxpayers find problematic. Douglas Melton, the co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, told the Boston Globe last week that private support is “the only durable and consistent source’’ of funding for embryonic stem-cell research. He’s right. Medical research would not wither away if the government took a back seat to the private sector. In this as in so many other areas, perhaps it's time to re-think Washington’s role.

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