Barack Obama certainly has his plate full this holiday season and it will undoubtedly be piled higher by the time he's sworn in on Jan. 20. The decision on where to dive in and take the first bite must be a daunting prospect for the president-elect.
One modest proposal: Stem cell research.
The recent breakthrough by Spanish doctors using stem cells cultivated from a patient's body to rebuild her esophagus has excited researchers and stem cell advocates around the world. The news also underscores the urgency with which the Obama administration must address the deficiencies in U.S. funding and ethical oversight not just in stem cell research, but in all cutting-edge biomedical research.
Our hobbled economy, mishandled foreign policy, and poor image on the world stage will obviously occupy a great deal of President Obama's attention during his first months in office, but here is one area where he can set right the pendulum of scientific initiative. Over the past eight years, stem cell research has been hindered by two debilitating factors:
A crackdown on embryonic stem cell research, issued by President Bush in August 2001, restricting the scope of research conducted in U.S. laboratories.
An absence of funding for the National Institutes of Health. Despite the doubling of the NIH budget in the late 1990s, research funding was flat-lined throughout the Bush administration's tenure.
By every objective measure, cutting-edge stem cell research has been significantly under-funded. Between 2001 and 2008, the NIH spent $3.7 billion on all types of stem cell research a big number, certainly, but not the $4.83 billion received by the National Cancer Institute in one year alone (2005). Despite these limitations, there have been promising discoveries in many types of cell-based research, including embryonic stem cells, somatic cell nuclear transfer, reprogrammed adult stem cells, and more. Many of these advances have been achieved abroad, where foreign researchers enjoy government support.
But without the full efforts of the NIH, important advances have been delayed. The time has come for the U.S. to pick up the pace.
President-elect Obama has stated publicly that he intends to lift these limitations, but he needs to do so immediately. He also needs to address ethical oversight and the need for national guidelines. When President Bush's ideological ban is set aside in favor of logical, ethical guidelines, many scientists predict a renewed interest in federal funding for stem cell projects.
In our current economic climate, Congress and the Obama White House will have to scramble to find the resources to make up for lost time in the federal commitment to this research, but private initiative will once again be unencumbered. When that happens and it will happen we must have a policy that is based on science, not politics.
As outgoing NIH director Elias Zerhouni has pointed out, all types of stem cell research are interrelated and bolster the other types. By having politicians arbitrarily limit some, all ethical research is harmed.
This is not to say that all types of stem cell exploration are necessarily ethical and acceptable. Real ethical issues arise with this cutting-edge research. We must develop robust national standards to oversee the ethics and efficacy of these initiatives, to be followed by government researchers and also by states and private companies.
As President, Barack Obama will be able to overturn President Bush's restrictions with the stroke of a pen, and he will have a supportive Congress. It's just one bite from a plate piled high with issues, but it's a start.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is chief architect of legislation overturning President Bush's 2001 restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.