President Obama picked a dramatic and appropriate way to highlight his call for science, not politics, to drive federal policymaking. By lifting the Bush administration's ban on embryonic stem cell research Monday, he opened the door to potentially life-saving research by allowing scientists access to hundreds of stem cell lines that have been off limits for eight years.
Because embryonic cells are more adaptive than adult ones, researchers believe they may hold the key to curing a host of illnesses and repairing damaged tissue. But many religious and social conservatives oppose the research because extracting cells from human embryos destroys the embryo, which they liken to abortion. In 2001, President Bush limited federal research funds to the two dozen stem cell lines already derived. Obama reversed that directive Monday.
Obama still faces the same ethical questions Bush did. The president's directive was broad: to fund "responsible, scientifically worthy" research that yields "new discoveries and new therapies." That goal line is always moving in the fast-paced world of biomedical research. Obama appropriately made clear that human cloning is off limits, but he refused to lay out research guidelines, giving the National Institutes of Health four months to craft "appropriate safeguards." The institutes, which will solicit input from researchers and ethicists, should be sensitive to the concerns many Americans have about embryonic research. The practice raises legitimate moral issues, and there is no sense risking a political backlash that could set back medical science.
The decision should bring a welcome burst of money to the bioscience industry as the economic recession has dampened investment and research. Stem cells have enormous potential to help researchers understand and perhaps cure a range of diseases, from cancer to Parkinson's, and to form the building blocks for regenerative medicine, which could reduce the need for surgery.
Obama also ordered his administration to separate science from politics. The administration is expected to come back this summer with a plan to remove the polluting influence of politics in matters ranging from job hires to agency recommendations. That would go a long way toward building public confidence in the Obama White House, and in particular, whatever stem cell guidelines the National Institutes adopt. But the president has shown a level of sensitivity at the outset — and reaffirmed the proper role for science in addressing the nation's health and environmental challenges.