The Debate Continues To Rage

September 5th, 2008

I received a press release today from an organization called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank located in Washington DC and committed to “free enterprise and limited government.”

And, while free enterprise and limited government are not inherently bad, years of bad politics and close-minded agendas immediately put a bad taste in my mouth when I read the phrase.

Still, I was interested in what they had to say this time around.

… a new report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute calls into question whether, ethics aside, stem cell research is even a sensible expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

 Government stem cell research programs, such as California’s Proposition 71, are bureaucratic, wasteful, and mired in political controversy And, because stem cell research is inherently speculative and politically controversial, the public would be best served if governments left it to the private sector.

 “This is not a question of whether the research should be conducted, but whether public funding for it is justified,” said Fry-Revere. “It is impossible to know how successful this research will be or whether any individual projects will produce genuine medical treatments, and it is not the place of government to gamble with taxpayers’ money.”

I can see the argument here; stop government funding of the research because private groups will do the work anyway, and public funding comes with beaurocracy that almost negates the benefits of the research itself. It is true. Publically funded labs have to comply with incredibly strict regulations that make doing the research nearly impossible… not to mention the restrictions on cell lines.

However, this is not what I see as their main point. They primarily argue that the nature of the research is too speculative. Why should the government fund research that might not amount to anything? Sure, fair enough. Why should it?

But, then again, why shouldn’t the government be a part of promoting science and the search for knowledge? The government can help the economy by putting taxpayer money back into industries like scientific research. Not only will that money increase the number of jobs in that sector (something that is good in this time of a 6.1% unemployment rate), but the result could also be something that will help mankind.

Whether or not cures actually come from basic research is not the point of supporting science with taxpayer money. Besides, didn’t the California taxpayers decide to set a certain amount of money aside for stem cell research? It’s not as though the decision was made by someone other than “the people” in this case.

I am amazed to think that supporting science is “gambl[ing] with taxpayers’ money.” The arguments made in the press release are emotional at best, and not supported by fact in the least. If supporting things can be considered gambling one might as well say that public funding of the educational system is a gamble because we have no idea how any of the kids are going to turn out. They might all end up drug addicts and thieves. I’d like to counter that financial support of science and basic reasearch is rather an investment in the future.

Finally, if they really have an issue with the speculative nature of stem cell research, why bring up this question only for stem cells. Why not bring into question funding of science in general? Take the argument to its logical end. It seems that this focused approach belies an underlying agenda.What that agenda is I can only guess at, but I feel that their argument against stem cell funding in this case was disingenuous at best.

8 Responses to “The Debate Continues To Rage”

  1. Ike on September 5, 2008 12:31 pm

    I’m torn.

    There are MANY things that should be left to the private sector. Basic research should be encouraged, however.

    The problem is when basic research gets bureaucratized to the point of becoming a sacred cow. When was the last real breakthrough from Fermilab? 1995 or so?

    Scientists, by nature, should never settle into an attitude of entitlement.

  2. Mark on September 5, 2008 12:35 pm

    Hey Dr Kiki,
    Still love you!!
    And thanks for pointing out the hypocrisy of these “conservative” organizations, every bit from rational thinking people like you helps.

  3. Charles-A Rovira on September 5, 2008 12:52 pm

    Private funded research is, by its very nature, heavily focused on ROI and profitability. (The ONLY exceptions I can think of are Bell Labs and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. [The first of which EXIST anymore and the second is focused on finding profit.)

    But diseases which would benefit the most from the research are not the most cost effective ones. They tend to be small in the number of afflicted.

    (The WHO estimates that 15% of the general population is disabled, at any one time and from all possible causes. That means that your cause, whatever it was/is/might be will be ignored in favor of the so called low hanging fruits.)

    My own cause, and my disease, is MS which affects/afflicts 0.0833%, or 1 in 1,200 of the general population. That’s too few people spending too little money to motivate the profit motive.

    We have benefited a great deal from AIDS research, but only indirectly.

    Researchers have learned to use various drugs which turn OFF our over active immune systems while researching what turns ON suppressed immune systems.

    That is NOT encouraging.

    When the AIDS researchers find an anti-viral cure for AIDS, I predict that almost all MS research will dry up as the government funding for immune system research dry up.

    The problem is that while it can make for a possibly effective treatment, if you can survive the side-effects and the cases where it doesn’t work, its is NOT a cure.

  4. Sigrid Fry-Revere on September 5, 2008 8:58 pm

    Please read the entire article before passing judgment. The speculative nature of stem cell research was emphasized in the press release but is only one of several arguments. Some of the other arguments, of which there are many, include 1) that governments are making promises they can’t keep — in short they are lying to the public. Californians could have made a democratic decision to create jobs and build research facilities, but that isn’t what happened. Some voters may have understood that that is what they were voting for, but that is not what they were told. When Californians voted for Prop. 71 they were promised lower health care costs and cures for horrible diseases in their life-times. Neither of which could be promise with any kind of sincerity. 2) The paper also points out that when government takes on research projects it discourages the private sector from doing so. If promoting stem cell research is the goal then give your money to Harvard or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute directly where more research can be done more efficiently. 3) The presumption that spending more money to promote research regardless of whether the source is public or private will promote more research more quickly is simply not true. Even the Congressional Budget Office acknowledges that there is a crowding out effect when government steps in and funds something that otherwise would be funded by the private sector. And 4) When research is as controversial as stem cell research (this distinguishes government paying for this type of research from others), laws and regulations banning the research or certain aspects of it are passed at public behest without either legislators or the public fully understanding the ramifications of their actions. Stem cell research could have been conducted quietly under existing regulations (there are 100s of FDA and HHS regulations already in place to assure careful and ethical research including Institutional Review Boards that include community members who help approve experimental treatments), but because of a volatile political climate, some research institutions are having trouble attracting foreign scientists. others are not daring to venture into stem cell research, and yet others are moving to more stem cell research friendly countries. These are only a few of the main arguments. It is unfair for someone to judge the content of a an entire work based on one press release or a general distaste for the name “American Enterprise Institute.” The primary author, by the way, is president of an organization called the Center for Ethical Solutions, which is dedicated to finding solutions to patient care issues across party lines. As is so often the case, nothing is quite as black and white as it first appears.

  5. Sigrid Fry-Revere on September 5, 2008 9:02 pm

    Sorry — I think I said “American Enterprise Institute” — I meant, “Competitive Enterprise Institute.”

  6. Kevin on September 6, 2008 12:10 pm

    With the US national debt rising at 1.93 billion a day, public funding for anything is going to dry up pretty fast, so this whole debt may be a mute point. Personally I don’t think the Federal Government should be taxing and spending my money for anything more then the basics. The basics would be building and maintaining national infrastructure as well as national defense. Anything above and beyond that is unnecessary.

    I will also point out that doing research on human beings without their informed consent is unethical. Just because a human being is smaller in size, has a lower level of development, lives in a different environment and has a higher degree of dependency does not make it ethically right. You would never allow some one to do medical experiments on your grand mother living in a nursing home so why would you allow someone to do medical experiments on those that are most venerable in society and at their beginning of their human development?

    Now that is something to debate.

    Take care,

  7. Inoculated Mind on September 10, 2008 11:40 pm

    I think Sigrid above should take a look at successful experiments with rodents and ES cells regenerating part of their pancreatic capacity before making judgements about the capabilities of the science. Also as someone who followed the California bill closely, the campaaign was very measured in its treatment of the potential of the research, cures were not ‘promised.’ I’d like to add that another reason California went for this was so that researchers would not be pulled everywhere.

    Kevin: Scientific research IS one of the basics. It would also be interesting to debate why a single human cell is considered by some to be more important than all the other multi-cellular non-human animals out there? Did the cow you ate meat from give informed consent? At least it has a cerebral cortex.

    I see, after reading the article on the CEI site, that Sigrid was one of the authors, so I can see why you’re defending it here. Since you are one of the authors, I’d like to point out to you that characterizing Thompson’s research at the UW as a notch in the belt of “private funding” is problematic. First, because Thompson’s research uses new stem cell lines, it is ineligible for federal funding. Therefore, other funding is needed for the research. The UW foundation funds his research – and they are the official gift-accepting organization for the UW. In other words, like any university that receives monetary gifts that get allocated for research, the UW foundation handles that for the University of Wisconsin, as a non-profit corporation. If federal funding was available, then there would be little doubt that the lab would be federally-funded.

    I also notice that when someone challenges public funding of ES cell research and slows its use, in the case of California, you argue that it is the public nature of the funding that is a ‘hindrance’ rather than the people wasting money and time with lawsuits.

    Federal funding is needed for these areas of research, because the potential public benefit is high, and as was pointed out above, many of the diseases affect a few people – for-profit companies rarely pay attention to the small-ticket items. More than that, much can be learned about basic human biology that would not be paid attention to by a biotech company, or if so, wouldn’t be published where it could benefit other research efforts.

    I would like to point out that the Competitive Enterprise Institute was the same organization that put out those bogus “Some call carbon dioxide a pollutant, we call it life” ads that misrepresented the research of climate scientists. One scientist had to come out and tell everyone that the CEI got it wrong. So today, the CEI is passing judgement on how successful ES cell research will be, and we’re supposed to consider them knowledgeable about this area of science?

    It’s almost as if the CEI is predisposed to arguing against publicly-funded research, or research conclusions merely to try to promote for-profit efforts, or prevent inconvenient evidence that might harm other for-profit efforts?

  8. Ben on September 20, 2008 1:01 pm

    The CEI lost me when they became boosters for war with Iraq. They became partisan Republicans – NOT principled advocates for limited government.

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