Falling Behind?

Published December 4, 2006

National Review Online

Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have made clear that overturning President Bush’s embryonic-stem-cell-research-funding policy will be high on their agenda when they take the reins of the Congress. So come January, it seems we are in for yet another performance of the great stem-cell drama on Capitol Hill. 

Opponents of the president’s funding policy have by now repeated their lines in this drama so often that every observer has come to know them by heart: It seems 100 million people are sick (every third American?), only embryonic stem cells can help them (based on what proof?), and by insisting on withholding taxpayer dollars from newly derived lines of cells, President Bush is preventing progress and cures, and causing American scientists to fall behind their counterparts abroad.

This bizarre morality tale is told and retold ad nauseam, and has surely sunk in. But now and then, some fragment of fact breaks through the din and threatens the narrative, and for just a brief moment — before that fact, too, is pushed to the side — it seems like the story might fall apart.

The latest such troublesome truth has to do with what is usually the final piece of the great stem-cell narrative: that American scientists are falling behind foreigners because of the Bush-administration’s funding policy. That policy, let us recall, does provide (and for the first time) funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, but only for lines of cells that existed before the policy came into effect, not for those created after. That way, taxpayer dollars (more than $100 million so far) can advance the research, but without encouraging the ongoing destruction of human embryos.

This one ethical limit, say opponents of the policy, sets American scientists behind their foreign counterparts in the embryonic-stem-cell race. “The administration’s policies have left our researchers far behind the rest of the world,” California Senator Dianne Feinstein claimed on the Senate floor in June. Another Democrat, Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, traveled all the way to Britain that same month to assert that “leadership in this area of research has shifted to the United Kingdom.”

There is, of course, a simple way to test these claims. Just count the number of stem-cell publications produced by scientists in different countries. In the October issue of the scientific journal Stem Cells, a group of German scientists did just that. Their paper, in plain terms and lucid tones, utterly demolishes the notion that American scientists are the slow runners in the global embryonic-stem-cell race.

The team reviewed all original human-embryonic-stem-cell-research publications from 1998 (when such cells were first derived in humans) to the end of 2005. Fully 40 percent (125) of these publications came from one country: the United States. The rest were divided among 20 other nations, with the next nearest competitor (Israel) claiming only 13 percent (42) of the papers. The British, Congresswoman DeGette notwithstanding, came in third with just 9 percent, or 30 publications. A very lopsided lead for America.

And the lead seems to be holding, despite prior reports to the contrary. The last major review of embryonic-stem-cell publications, which covered the period from 1998 to 2004, was undertaken earlier this year by two American researchers, Jason Owen-Smith of the University of Michigan, and Jennifer McCormick of Stanford, and published in the April 2006 issue of Nature Biotechnology. The two clearly set out to prove the claim that Americans were falling behind, and when their data showed otherwise (like this latest study, they found a sizeable American lead) they sought frantically to spin it. Through a series of comical contortions (including comparing American scientists alone to those of the entire rest of the world combined, rather than those in individual countries) they managed to crunch their numbers to show that America’s lead is declining. If you squint just right and look sideways at the numbers, such twisted analysis just might let you hold on to the “falling behind” narrative. And indeed, after showing a sizeable American lead, Owen-Smith and McCormick, without a hint of irony, wrote: “The United States is falling behind in the international race to make fundamental discoveries in hES cell–related fields.”

Unlike the more recent German study, Owen-Smith and McCormick declined to make their full data public (perhaps fearing it would be used as ammunition by supporters of the Bush policy), so it was hard to tell exactly what contortions they engaged in. But the authors of this latest study figured it out. They note that their data does not agree with the previous study’s claim that America’s lead is declining, pointing out that even if you just count papers published in 2004 or 2005 alone, Americans still published roughly 40% of all embryonic-stem-cell studies. “These divergent findings,” the German group writes, “are probably due to the fact that international collaborations of U.S. groups have been marked as ‘collaborative research’ by Owen-Smith and McCormick.” In other words, the previous study excluded from the American count publications on which even one researcher was from a foreign lab, and so arrived at an artificially low number.

This latest paper — which, not surprisingly, has received essentially no press coverage — simply and decisively disproves a critical contention of opponents of the Bush policy. But it is important to be clear about exactly what that means.

The limits on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research exist for ethical reasons, not scientific ones. They exist to make sure the government does not endorse the destruction of human life for research, and thus undermine the American ideal of basic human equality. If upholding that principle meant that no stem-cell research at all could proceed, doing so would be no less (or more) justified than it is now. The fact that the principle can be upheld while still enabling so much research to go forward is not the reason the policy is justified. But it is a reason to hope that science and ethics need not stand in opposition to each other. With the right kinds of careful policies, and the right kinds of innovative scientific techniques, science and ethics can go hand-in-hand.

Opponents of the Bush policy, in insisting it sets American scientists behind their foreign counterparts, implicitly argue that science and ethics cannot go hand-in-hand, and that we are forced to choose between them. We now see they are wrong not only in principle, but also in fact. 

 — Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of the The New Atlantis magazine.

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