Scientific Integrity and Stem Cells

D.C. Science / by Robert Koenig /

President Obama signs two key documents to help ensure America's continued global leadership in scientific discoveries.

Gathering prominent scientists and legislators together in the White House, President Obama signed a pair of directives Monday that loosen restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research and demand “scientific integrity” in the federal government.

“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion…” said Obama. “It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

Obama’s executive order on stem cells lifts President George W. Bush’s limits on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but congressional action would be needed to change a separate law that bans federal financing for human embryo experiments. Obama has ordered the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to draw up guidelines within four months under which scientists will be able to apply for federal grants to research the hundreds of human embryonic stem cell lines.

Former NIH director Harold Varmus, the president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and co-chair of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said the NIH will look closely at suggested stem cell guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, which require informed consent from embryo donors.

The prospect heartened many stem cell researchers. “This is a fabulous liberation of scientific research,” said David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and co-chair of Harvard University’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. He told Seed that Obama’s directives will open up competitive NIH grants to the best stem cell research and stop the wasteful “double-pipette” restrictions that required scientists to separate approved and non-approved stem cell lines in experiments. (Bush’s order had limited federal funding to studies of 21 existing stem cell lines; hundreds of other stem cell lines have since been created that are better suited for research.)

President Obama signed an order reversing President Bush’s limits on stem cell research and a memorandum on scientific integrity in government decision making. Photograph: Michael Stebbins/

In a joint statement Monday, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine said Obama’s order “can hasten progress through stem cell research to treat disease and ease suffering.” The academies said the order “echoes the recommendations of a 2001 report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, which noted that public funding was the most efficient and responsible way to realize the medical promise of embryonic stem cell research.”

Scientists in states that acted on their own to fund embryonic stem cell research during the Bush years — including California, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey — stand to benefit from the loosened restrictions, in part because they now have a head start on rivals elsewhere.

Federal law continues to ban the use of federal money to destroy human embryos for their stem cells.  But, depending on the new NIH rules, funding may be allowed for research using stem cells derived from embryos specifically created to yield them, rather than being limited to cells from frozen embryos destined to be discarded by fertility clinics. Several members of Congress are pushing for legislation to revise the current federal restrictions, but opponents, including many Republicans, have vowed to try to stop that initiative. Congress twice passed legislation that would have expanded NIH funding for stem cell research, but President Bush vetoed the bills both times.

Many scientists have complained that Bush’s restrictions have set back embryonic stem cell research in this country, with surveys indicating that the US share of stem cell research publications has dropped significantly since 2001. While Scadden does not think many US stem cell scientists actually left the country to pursue their research elsewhere, he said the restrictions have “led some of the best and brightest young researchers to shift to other fields.” He also said that, while some promising research has focused on adult stem cells, that “embryonic stem cells remain the gold standard” for now.

In a separate presidential memorandum, Obama ordered the OSTP’s leadership to develop a strategy within four months to ensure that the selection of professionals for science and technology jobs in the executive branch should be based on “scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, and experience,” and that federal agencies:

  • Use scientific and technological information that has been subject to well-established scientific processes such as peer review;
  • make those findings available to the public; and
  • have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency, including whistleblower protection.

The Bush administration had been widely criticized for “politicizing” science in several key areas, such as climate change, reproductive freedom, and the protection of endangered species. Obama pledged that his directive will base public policy on sound science: “We appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.”

“That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals — to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.”

Originally published March 12, 2009

Tags biotechnology governance policy politics

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