Lost somewhere among the polling, celebrity advertisements, and talk-radio blowhards sits a ten-year-old diabetic. Lost somewhere among the debates, the donations, the down-to-the-wire phone banks stands a bright talented graduate student deciding in what field to build her career. And lost somewhere among abortion rights and national health care reform sits stem cell research, not as a political bludgeon but as a real policy that will affect the course of American science for a generation.
We've learned that when it comes to swinging votes, when it comes to revealing candidates' real values, when it comes to driving a wedge between hard-right fundamentalists and true compassionate conservatives, stem cells are important for this election. But the question remains: is this election important for stem cells?
After all, the House and Senate already passed a bill last summer that authorizes federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. That bill was vetoed by President Bush. Does the McCaskill-Talent Senate race in Missouri, where stem cells have become a battlefield issue, really make a difference? How many more pro-research Senators do we need?
The answer is 4. But only if we get another 50 Representatives in the House. That's what it would take to override the President's veto. Is that likely to happen? If we don't get those numbers, is there anything else an even stronger pro-research Congress can do? The answers are "probably not," and "ab-so-fucking-lutely."
Stem cells in the Senate
The stem cell funding authorization bill passed the Senate 63 to 37. We need 67 votes to override a veto.
Among the Nays, there are 8 Senators up for re-election next week. They are Allen (VA), Burns (MT), DeWine (OH), Ensign (NV), Kyl (AZ), Santorum (PA), Talent (MO), and Thomas (WY). The ones in bold are ones I consider possible or likely to flip from Nay to Yea. Burns is quite likely to be replaced by the apparently pro-research Tester; DeWine will be replaced by the pro-research Brown. (Santorum will be replaced by the anti-research Casey, leaving Pennsylvanians in the awkward position of being represented by a pro-research Republican and an anti-research Democrat.)
It seems the two variables that make an anti-research politician reconsider his views are (1) having a close relative with a devastating but potentially curable disease, and (2) re-election. On the first of course I can wish only for the health and well-being of everyone dear to the Senators, but for the second I would take special note of Coleman (MN), Cornyn (TX), and Sununu (NH), each of whom is up for re-election in 2008 and each of whom comes from a state where the other Senator voted Yea. Based solely on those criteria, I would consider these the three softest Nays.
Among the Yeas, the vote of Frist (TN) will be replaced by either the pro-research Ford or the anti-research Corker. Overall, then, to reach an override in the Senate we need to take Montana and Ohio, as well as maintaining and gaining pro-research Senators in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri. Failing that, we may turn our eyes to mounting pro-research challenges in Minnesota, Texas, and New Hampshire to encourage those Senators to re-think their positions before 2008.
I cannot emphasize enough how important the outcome of Claire McCaskill's race in Missouri is. She has placed stem cells front and center in the state of Missouri, where voters next week will not only elect a new Senator but will also vote on pro-research Amendment 2, which guarantees stem cell research will be protected in the state. The top of McCaskill's web page is taken up by the Michael J. Fox ad, and she has made it clear that a vote for her is a vote in favor of research. A victory in this race not only gives us another Yea vote but also sends a signal to all politicians that the atmosphere has changed: that voters will not tolerate politicians who put fealty to the President above science, medicine, and the public well-being. I encourage you to help McCaskill get out the vote and provide funds for her efforts.
Stem cells in the House
Unfortunately, a veto override vote in the Senate would mean very little without two-thirds of the House to back it up. The stem cell bill passed the House last July by a vote of 235 to 193. Thus, we would need to flip about 50 Yeas to Nays (and get the non-voters who support research -- Evans (IL-17), Gutierrez (IL-4), Lewis (GA-5), and McKinney (GA-4) -- to show up and vote) in order to bring federally funded stem cell research back to this country.
The House is difficult to handicap because there are so many members to track and polling is relatively sparse. I'm going mainly by Mimikatz's latest analysis in her outstanding series summarizing the national picture week-by-week.
From Mimikatz's analysis, I see about 15 districts where a representative who voted Nay may be replaced by a Democrat. Those incumbents were Beauprez, Chabot, Chocola, Cubin, Fitzpatrick, Harris, Hayworth, Hostettler, Kennedy, Ney, Nussle, Reynolds, Sherwood, Sodrel, and Taylor (NC). There's another 10 or so that optimistically might be taken over by Democrats: Hart, McMorris, Musgrave, Osborne, Otter, Pombo, Renzi, Ryun, Schmidt, Souder, and Tiberi. I haven't gone race-by-race to figure out where an anti-research incumbent might be replaced by a pro-research Republican or if any of the Democrats in these races are themselves anti-research. But, figure a best case scenario where something like 25 new Congresspeople vote Yea and those 4 non-voters show up. That gets us close to 30 more votes, but still about 20 votes short of a veto override.
Here, again, is where Claire McCaskill's campaign in Missouri plays in. Claire is situated to become the poster child for candidates swept into office on a wave of voters who support publicly funded science research and reject fundamentalist anti-science dogma and the politicization of science, from stem cells to evolution to global warming. Facing a lame duck President with even lamer national approval, facing a public demanding that science be held above politics, demanding that America pursue every avenue to cure disease, are there 20 more Congresspeople who might think twice before voting Nay, before cutting off that hope, before giving their constituents a big middle finger and the President a kiss on his foot? It's not likely that we'll get a veto override in the House. But it's not impossible.
The path to stem cells
After the polling, the campaigning, the vote-counting is over, people will continue to get sick with diseases we can't cure. Scientists will continue to work on understanding the fundamental principles of life, giving doctors new ideas for how to help the sick get well. The mid-term election won't change that. No matter what happens, most of the cures will likely come from biotech and pharmaceutical companies.
But the speed with which those ventures progress depends critically on the basic science that we invest in. As I've argued before, public money is best spent on basic research not diseases -- questions like, "How can a cell divide forever?," "How can a single cell divide to give two different types of cell?," and "How does a cell decide whether to be a nerve cell, a pancreas cell, a blood cell, or something else?" The answers to these simple questions are what is being held back by the President's anti-research restrictions, and the understanding that comes from those answers is what will allow the field to move forward. Curing Parkinson's is great, but first you need to understand the problem. That's what academic researchers are good at, and what is too risky for most private companies to invest in. (Disclaimer: I'm an academic scientist, although I don't do anything with stem cells.)
Some of that can happen without a stem cell bill. Increasing NIH funding is part of it -- President Bush is the first President since Nixon to cut the NIH budget, and the consequences have been painful throughout public research. That is something that we can reasonably expect next year's Congress to fix, and that will help. But to understand stem cells, we need to be able to work with stem cells. State funding initiatives, like that set up in California, are terrific and I think they make science funding healthier overall in the long term, but they are not enough.
The chances of getting a stem cell bill past President Bush next year are slim. The chances of overriding his veto in 2008 are better, but decidedly iffy. (If he is impeached, of course, we needn't worry about his veto.) Are there ways to restore stem cell funding without a stem cell bill? There is no law barring stem cell research -- there is a 1996 law that prevents the creation or destruction of embryos for research, but it allows the use of any new stem cell lines derived by industry, foreign labs, or other non-federal sources. In 2001 Bush issued a Presidential directive to NIH (which is in the executive branch) telling them not to fund any research using new stem cell lines. (Excellent background material here.) From what I understand, the President could issue a directive not to fund any research that supports evolution -- anything that Congress hasn't explicitly authorized, he is free to restrict -- and because the directive is confined to the executive branch, a legal challenge is all but pointless.
I'm not convinced there are no ways around it. For example, I could imagine a bill that says "NIH is authorized to fund any research not prohibited by Congress." Make it part of a Scientific Integrity Act, and include other worthwhile restrictions like prohibiting the White House from editing scientific reports, as they have done in the past for global warming, and preventing them from attempting to restrict funding based on political ideology, as they have attempted for studies of HIV transmission. This approach shifts the debate from stem cells to executive-versus-legislative powers, and places it within the frame of Presidential overreaching, along with torture and illegal wiretaps. All of it is aimed at preventing the politicization of science -- who in Congress is going to stand up to vote in favor of politicizing science and Presidential overreaching?
There are other real policy issues that will come before this Congress, that have been stifled until now. Genetic nondiscrimination. Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan group that reports on scientific issues to Congress and that Gingrich dismantled in 1995. It remains authorized, but unfunded, and a Democratic Congress should bring it back. NIH funding. All of these depend on increasing the number of pro-research Congresspeople.
Those efforts will be pushed by us, by the voters, but also by new groups like Scientists and Engineers for America. I spoke by phone with a member of the SEforA Board of Directors for this post, and I want to acknowledge how helpful that conversation was for the background. They are there as a resource for all of us, if you are writing on science and have a question post it at their blog or their discussion group on facebook (apparently you don't need to be in college to join facebook anymore, who knew?). Groups like SEforA will be carrying this fight forward and holding Congress to its promises -- I encourage you to join them (you don't need to be a scientist). This week they will be launching a major buy of banner ads on local news sites targeting specific races, and I'm told that money you give them now will be put directly into that effort -- a one-stop shop for you to help promote pro-research candidates.
Stem cells are becoming an important part of our political campaigns; we need to make sure they become an important part of our policy-making as well. It's important for American science, and for American values -- for rationalism, for a belief in truth over ideology. It's important for all of us who have had someone close suffering from a disease that is waiting to be cured. I've read many of the comments on this topic in the past week on DailyKos and was struck by how even a relatively small community like that has such a very large number of people affected by Alzheimer's, by Parkinson's, by diabetes and MS and ALS, by diseases whose best hopes for treatment lie in the future that will come out of a basic understanding of how stem cells work.
We need to keep telling those stories. I'm grateful to those in the blogosphere who have told us about their experiences, how fromer's grandfather had Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, like draftchrisheinz's great-grandfather, the Alzheimer's sufferers like blue jersey mom's mother, the Parkinson's sufferers like not one but two of Boris Godunov's grandparents, smugbug's boyfriend's father, peteri2's grandfather, Fletch17C's grandfather, gatorcog's father, Keone Michael's grandmother and aunt, Jon Meltzer's mother and grandmother, TheGardener's loved one, True Blue Tar Heel's father, Trim Your Bush's uncle, mickT's father, Pandoras Box's brother, Dirk McQuigley's grandfther and uncle, Vince Hill's grandmother and aunt, emptywheel's mom, Rinaldo Migaldi's mother, nsrider's grandmother, and BoxerDave's mother, the diabetes sufferers like 2dems4life's mother, the ALS sufferers like geordie's aunt, the MS sufferers like varro's mom and Webster's close friend's mom. I'm grateful to those members of our community who have shared their personal experiences and how they feel about seeing stem cell research choked, like kilo50 and Timroff who each have diabetes, and the admirable ALS Fighter who, of course, has ALS.
These are not rare diseases. These are not trivial ailments. These are life-destroying, expensive, terrifying illnesses. Stem cells, as an issue, reveal politician's values -- but stem cells, as biology, reveal an important part of the future of American science and medicine. When that future arrives will be determined, in part, by next week's election. We need to put up a giant neon sign that says "Vote against stem cells, vote against research, vote against science, and you will be replaced."
The place for that sign is Missouri.