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Obama's Nod To Science

President signs orders on scientific integrity, stem cell research

by Susan R. Morrissey
March 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 11

Credit: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison
Researchers can now get federal support for human embryonic stem cell research.
Credit: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison
Researchers can now get federal support for human embryonic stem cell research.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA has signed orders that, observers say, underscore his Administration's commitment to science.

Specifically, Obama signed an executive memorandum to ensure that scientific policy decisions are based on facts and not ideology. He also signed an executive order to lift an eight-year-old limit on federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells.

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources—it's also about protecting free and open inquiry," the President said at a March 9 signing ceremony at the White House. "It's about letting scientists like those who are here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient."

The memorandum directs the head of the Office of Science & Technology Policy to develop a strategy to protect the integrity of science, including making sure science policy decisions are transparent and science adviser appointments are based on credentials and not politics. Such a strategy might be delayed, however, as Obama's pick to head OSTP, John Holdren, has yet to be confirmed.

"Given the vast challenges confronting our nation, the practice and application of sound science will be critical to finding solutions to those challenges," says Glenn S. Ruskin, director of ACS's Office of Public Affairs. "Scientists need to be able to conduct and communicate their research in an environment of openness and transparency."

Obama's executive order lifts a 2001 policy put in place by then-president George W. Bush, which limited federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research to studies based on the cell lines in existence at that time. Some 21 viable lines fall into this category, but they are not therapeutically usable because they are contaminated with animal material.

Obama's order charges NIH with determining what human embryonic stem cell research will be eligible for funding and developing a strict set of ethical guidelines for such research within 120 days.

"The executive order takes no position on scientific matters," said NIH Acting Director Lawrence A. Tabak at a briefing after the White House signing ceremony. Instead, he said, the President rightfully left it to NIH to take a "very careful and deliberate look" at what research to support. "The end goal is to ensure responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research" gets funded, he said.

To codify the President's order, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), coauthors of a stem cell bill twice vetoed by Bush, say they intend to push Congress to again pass their bill.

Congress must pass legislation quickly so the issue is not a "ping-pong ball" that gets batted around by different Administrations, DeGette said.



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