Politicians must let scientists handle scientific research


The recent finding that stem cells drawn from amniotic fluid rather than from human embryos might have induced a “timeout” from the ongoing politicization of the emerging field of stem-cell research. After all, the potential of stem cells to provide cures or treatments for a variety of diseases is still very much in the potential stage, and it will take a while to digest the new findings.

Instead, of course, the House passed a bill to loosen restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research. The president is expected to veto it again. Both sides acknowledged the new information glancingly but preferred to stay with the political battle they thought they knew.

Unfortunately, whenever the government finances research with tax money, politics can be expected to play a huge role and often to trump science altogether. With stem cells, one side equates harvesting them from embryos with murder, while the other side acts as if stem-cell therapy, still more theoretical than real, is the guaranteed cure for scores of ailments.

One might think that when a substantial number of Americans believe a certain kind of activity is immoral that a decision not to spend money taken by force from all taxpayers on such activity would be a no-brainer.

After all, most effective medical research is done in the private or independent sectors. Many wealthy people have already donated to support stem-cell research, and a concerted campaign could surely raise more funding.

In fact, however, raising moral objections when the subject is taking embryonic human life almost seems to energize those who support it to redouble efforts to appropriate tax money and rub the fact in the faces of pro-life Americans. Neither side seeks to accommodate the desires of the other, because politics is conducted largely by energizing opposition and drawing for-me-or-against-me lines, leading to polarization, exaggeration and mutual resentment.

Scientific progress is seldom advanced and is often deterred when government pays for research, whether controversial or not. Thus we wouldn’t mind eliminating federal funding for all kinds of research.

Fewer marginal studies might be done, but more progress would almost certainly be made.

We don’t expect that new dawn anytime soon. But it would be nice if the politicos on all sides of the stem-cell controversy would step back and let the scientists have at it for a while.