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The importance of national stem cell funding in the US

23 April 2007
By Sam Berger and Professor Jonathan Moreno
Centre for American Progress
Appeared in BioNews 404
It appears that once again the US Congress will be unable to override President Bush's expected veto of legislation to loosen federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. In light of this political stalemate, as well as efforts in states like California, New Jersey, and New York to fund ES cell research, questions have been raised about the importance of federal support for this research.

As our recent report, 'Divided We Fail: The Need for National Stem Cell Funding' reveals, however, while states have made valiant attempts to advance stem cell research, they cannot replace federal support. States lack the revenue, infrastructure, and incentives to properly promote basic research on their own, especially with federal policies that limit collaboration, impede their funding, and fail to provide adequate research guidelines.

The federal government provides the lion's share of US public funding for stem cell research - 79.4 per cent through 2007 - and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The federal government will even spend more specifically on ES cell research than the states, meaning that unless federal stem cell policy changes, at least 55 per cent of the funding currently designated for ES cell research through 2018 will go to research on outdated stem cell lines.

The United States' national stem cell policy also forces states to waste money building new laboratories and purchasing new equipment, because they cannot use federally funded research facilities for federally ineligible research. So far, states have only spent a paltry 15 per cent of their funding on actual research, while they have spent 55 percent of their money on new buildings, new equipment and other non-research expenses. And even though infrastructure costs decrease over time, states will still spend at least 29 per cent of their money on non-research expenditures through 2018.

Allowing states to be the primary drivers of stem cell research also means that each state will develop its own research standards, potentially leading to a patchwork quilt of regulations that discourages collaboration and slows research. States will have less incentive to coordinate research support, which could cause research overlap and waste. And states will likely spend money on research expected to yield quick returns, not the basic research that is needed now to advance the field.

None of this is to criticise state efforts. States have acted above and beyond the call of duty, and they should continue aggressively funding ES cell research while striving to create uniform research standards and reduce research overlap in different states. Reports of recent talks among states about research collaboration are a good start.

But these efforts are not enough, particularly with regards to ES cell research. The federal government currently spends only a quarter of its stem cell research funding on ES cell research. Even with strong state support for this research, total funding for ES cell research by the federal and state governments is only 20.6 per cent of all the public money spent on stem cell research. If we are going to advance this promising field, the federal government will need to provide more support.

The federal government can start by updating its stem cell policy to fund the best science using ethically derived stem cell lines; the first step should be passing legislation similar to that of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The national government should also establish uniform regulations, drawing off the excellent guidelines proposed by the National Academies. Finally, the federal government should increase overall support for this promising field, and provide more funding specifically for ES cell research.

The US's outdated stem cell policy remains a national problem requiring a national solution. By adopting uniform research standards and strongly supporting research on any ethically derived stem cell lines, the federal government can provide the leadership needed to advance the science and fulfill the promise of stem cells.

1) 'Divided We Fail: The Need for National Stem Cell Funding'
|  20 May 2022
2) The Progressive Bioethics Initiative at the Center for American Progress
|  20 May 2022
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