Are Congressional Democrats really going to support stem cell research, or were stem cells simply a political device for the campaign trail?
We have seen that stem cell research is a useful political wedge to separate fundamentalist candidates, beholden to the extreme religious right, from an electorate of mainstream Republican voters (who support stem cell research). Democrats have done a great job stumping on stem cells and using legislation sure to be vetoed as a means to get incumbent Republicans on record voting against the publicly popular research.
But their policy action so far is disappointingly mixed. Democrats have continued to champion federal funding of stem cell research as a legislative matter -- that is, they have passed legislation aimed at reversing Bush's directive to the NIH and thereby freeing up federal money for the research. (A similar bill was also passed by the Republican-controlled House in May 2005 and the Republican-controlled Senate in September 2006.) However, when it comes to appropriating funding that would pay for that research, the current budget bills show a meager allocation for NIH, on par with the 2004-2006 budgets set by Republicans.
That means that even if stem cell research were eligible to receive federal dollars, the money available would be slim. At the same time, the engine of basic research discovery that is required for stem cell research to succeed is being choked off as the major national funding source -- NIH grants -- is held below the level of inflation. Although NIH money can't be used for almost any human stem cell research, the human work can be greatly accelerated by discoveries made in NIH-funded model systems, from mice to worms. While Democrats are at least protecting NIH from the worst of the cuts Bush has requested, they are nowhere near to putting their money where their mouths were when it comes to backing stem cell research. This Congress, run by Democrats, is failing to promote biomedical research more than the last two Congresses, run by Republicans, did.
Science magazine wrote on June 29 (subscription only):
There's not much relief in sight for NIH. An appropriations bill passed by a House panel and a companion measure approved by the Senate spending panel would both give NIH a small raise, reversing the president's proposed $279 million cut. The Senate boost of $1 billion, for example, would provide a 3.5% increase -- only half the amount biomedical research advocates are hoping for. That would bring NIH's total budget to $29.9 billion, $250 million more than the House has approved.
Even the Senate total is less than meets the eye, however. Both the House and Senate measures would add $200 million to the $100 million that NIH now transfers to the Global AIDS Fund, effectively cutting the Senate raise to only 2.8%. Still, even that meager increase would push the bill's total above the limit the White House has indicated would be acceptable.
Inflation in the life sciences this year is estimated at 3.7%; thus, Congress's increase is yet another year of real-dollar budget cuts for NIH. Even worse, the way they're allocating the money, most NIH institutes would see an increase of less than 2.5% under the Senate plan and less than 1.7% under the House plan, increases well below the level of inflation (Facts and figures on NIH budget and inflation from AAAS). Scientists weathered these cuts under two Republican Congresses. It is dismaying to see it continue under the Democrats.
If Democrats want to advance stem cell research, the cold policy truth is that they're better off forgetting about stem cell bills that are bound to be vetoed, and instead using their power to commit to increasing NIH funding at levels slightly above inflation annually over the next 20 years. As I wrote yesterday, the policy mantra in science funding should be slow, steady, and sustainable.
Stem cell boosterism may be a useful political tool to help Democrats get elected. It doesn't go far though if, once in power, they fail to act differently than Republicans, especially by failing to adequately fund the main source of American research grants, the NIH.