Change

In universities across the USA today, we are breathing a collective sigh of relief — the long national nightmare of an anti-science administration will soon come to a close.

We knew that the Bush administration’s days were numbered, of course, but I’m pleased that our next chief executive does not come from a party whose scientific judgment is dictated by the “moral” strictures of its religious fringe.

As a biogerontologist, here’s what I’m most interested to know: How soon after his inauguration President Obama will overturn GWB’s executive order banning the use of federal funds in embryonic stem cell research?

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8 comments

  1. Seeing as those “federal funds” you speak of are virtually non-existant these days, I wouldn’t hold your breath! He did mumble something about doubling funding for cancer research at some TV telethon cancer thingy back in August, but whether that just means diverting funds from elsewhere in NIH toward the NCI, remains to be seen.

  2. Senator Obama rarely mumbles; that’s not a particularly apt way to characterize anything he’s said.

    As a point of clarification: the doubling he referred to (and put in his campaign platform, as opposed to a driveby mention at a telethon) was for all basic research, not just cancer research. The time frame for implementation of that plan is 10 years.

    Funds are indeed scarce, but primarily because we’re misallocating them, and it’s not impossible to find the money to implement that plan. We’re currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq. Suppose that (conservatively) we halve those expenditures — that’s the entire NIH extramural research budget saved in just six months.

    A roughly seven percent annual increase for ten years is well within our ability as a nation (which comes out to 100% with compounding), especially after the economy recovers.

    Besides, I wasn’t talking about an increase in funding, rather about the academic freedom to pursue certain lines of work within the current funding environment. The Bush administration’s ban on the use of (even currently allotted) federal funds in embryonic stem has had a chilling effect on the use of private money to perform such research — in practice, people have to set aside whole labs where not a dime of federal money is spent on salaries, equipment or overhead, and that’s impossible for all but the richest institutions.

    Even if the NIH budget were to stay the same, reversing the executive order would restore our freedom to use the resources we have to pursue a major direction in regenerative medicine — one that’s highly germane to aging — a subject that’s basically been off-limits in the US for the past ~8 years.

  3. A couple points: In my area, an awful lot of funding for biomedical research is going through DHS (Dept of Homeland Security) budgets. I think this is a part of the DoD budget, although I am not sure. I can tell you that at Ft Detrick, NCI & NBAAC are both exploding with growth and funding. They are doing a lot of good cancer research and research related to wound healing and regenerative medicine. Basic medical research has traditionally been first about Military health and then trickles down into the private/public health sector.

    Other point: Since I am doing stem cells, I personally can’t wait to have Barack wipe out the Bush legislation for only the purposes of public perception. I am not involved in any embryonic stem cell research, but when I tell people what I do I inevitably get the “isn’t that controversial/illegal” inquiry. I work exclusively with adult & afterbirth tissues as a source of my cell lines. Lay people simply do not understand that the Bush doctrine only restricts access to ES cells and that companies like Pfizer & Merck, the guys that don’t need NIH funding, are perfectly able to do ES research and generate their own ES cell lines.

  4. OK, apologies, I didn’t get that the whole budget would be doubled, not just the bit devoted to cancer res. Either way, unless we stop peeing money down that hole in the desert someplace, there is no money for this mandate (or any of the other things Obama wants to do). I was very disappointed in the electoral run-up, to see neither of the candidates leveling with the American public about the serious belt-tightening and cutting of federal programs that is required.

    Furthermore, we should not just consider federal dollars when thinking about research budgets…

    1) The effects of economic melt-down on state budgets are huge. For example NY state is looking to close a $12bn gap. Any state-funded research building projects are going to be seriously affected.

    2) Also directly impacted by state budgets, most state universities have hiring freezes or severe limitations on start-up budgets. For many, a good start-up package is the equivalent of getting another RO1, and it’s a major reason that drives people to move every 5-10 years. Even at private universities, the endowments are hurting, which is having similar effects. The effects of the credit crunch on student enrollment numbers (due to lack of availability of student loans) might not be felt until next fall, but once that kicks in, university budgets will fall even more.

    3) Pharma’ companies are bleeding cash, and severely cutting back on their sponsorship of extramural research.

    It’s one thing to look at Obama and believe in his message of hope, but another thing to look at the entirety of the financial situation facing this country (and the world) and come away optimistic that research funding will increase any time soon. Depressing yes, but also realistic!

  5. ESC money or not, I want to know who will head his bioethics council; this administration will face a series of very complex bio/neuroethical challenges. Whoever it is I’m so so so glad it won’t be Leon Kass.

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