Obama Unleashes Stem Cell Research, Asserts Integrity of Science

March 10, 2009

The Obama administration yesterday took two major steps forward in basing public policy on sound science. President Barack Obama signed an executive order restoring federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and a presidential memorandum asking the White Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to ensure scientific integrity in government decisions.  

President Obama’s order making clear that the government intends to support human embryonic stem cell research parallels a CFI’s recommendation in a 2007 position paper entitled Stem Cell Research: An Approach to Bioethics Based on Scientific Naturalism , by Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s chief executive officer.   CFI’s position is that embryonic stem cell research should be funded by the government because of its critical importance in the advancement of medicine.   The research is in its infancy, but may lead to treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and spinal cord injuries.

Guidelines for research using embryonic stem cells will be developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within 120 days, in time for researchers to design competing projects for the extra funds provided in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (the stimulus bill).   Scientists will be able to use stem cell lines already in existence, as well as those left over from fertility treatments.

However, President Obama’s executive order does not permit scientific researchers to create their own stem cell lines. The Dickey-Wicker Act, passed by Congress in 1996 and renewed every year since, bans the use of federal funds for experimenting directly on embryos themselves. This ban can only be overturned by Congress, where the proposal to do so would provoke a battle royale between religious conservatives who consider embryos to be “persons” and those who approach them as the basis of scientific breakthroughs in dealing with severe illnesses. However, some in Congress believe the time may be right to overturn Dickey-Wicker and bills are being written to test this.

The second announcement, the presidential memorandum to the Office of Science and Technology Policy also was anticipated by CFI position papers.   In May 2007, Derek Araujo, Danny Horowitz, and Ronald A. Lindsay published Protecting Scientific Integrity and in October 2007 they followed it up with Protecting Scientific Integrity: An Update.   They presented specific recommendations for legislative action that would prevent political interference with the communication of scientific research results.

The Bush administration revised scientific results before they were published on global warming and environmental hazards, and put political obstacles in the way of emergency contraception, among many other issues. Obama repudiated this conduct with his presidential memo and promised that policy decisions would be based on science and science alone.

The CFI position papers on embryonic stem cell research and scientific integrity can be found under “Position papers” on this website.