Stem Cell Research Bill Up For Vote Tomorrow In Senate

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The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act is supposedly coming up for a vote tomorrow in the Senate. The House of Representatives passed the identical bill last spring on a vote of 238 to 194. The bill aims to expand the number of stem cell lines available for federal funding beyond the few approved by President Bush.

I know, I know–it's federal funding and as I've previously pointed out, federal funding may turn out to be superfluous because there's no shortage of private and state stem cell research funding. Yet, the federal limits arguably do have a chilling effect on the research, e.g., younger scientists will choose to go into other fields with less controversy.

Thanks to Gerontological Society of America for the heads up.

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  1. I hope the bill fails. Let the rich suffering from Parkinson’s, etc. pay for the research.

  2. I’d have no problem with the feds subsidizing research, if the products of the research go directly into the public domain. The last thing we need are more patents owned by our pound-foolish overlords …

  3. “Yet, the federal limits arguably do have a chilling effect on the research, e.g., younger scientists will choose to go into other fields with less controversy.”

    This statement is at odds with the position I usually see advocated about the second-order effects of a lack of government funding for a worthy effort. Suspiciously so, in fact.

    If there isn’t enough federal funding to attract students to field, isn’t that the genius of the market?

  4. There’s a good article in last week’s New Yorker that talks about why the “no federal funding” rule has such a chilling effect on even ostensibly private research. The problem seems to be that the public and private domains are extremely intertwined in the medical research sphere, and the original ruling is apparently being interpreted to mean that no research can be done in buildings that were built partially with federal money, no equipment can be used that was paid for partially with federal money, etc. The cost of pursuing private research becomes prohibitive when it involves building fully-equipped labs that are 100% segregated from federal-funded research.

  5. I know, I know–it’s federal funding…

    Check out the semi-metastatic growth of NIH’s appropriations:
    http://www.nih.gov/about/almanac/appropriations/index.htm

    Careful reading the chart – it got so wide the right half is on a second page.

    ($ * 1000)
    1938 $464
    1948 $24,626
    1958 $210,423
    1968 $1,076,461
    1978 $2,842,936
    1988 $6,666,693
    1998 $13,647,843
    2005 $28,495,157

    I bet they’re getting pretty damned close to finding a cure for one o’ them diseases, but it might be cheaper to just bribe the germs.

    All 22 stem cell lines currently available under the President’s policy are contaminated with mouse cells, making them dangerous to use in humans.
    Anti-mouse racism is rampant.

  6. Mises would argue that this smacks of interventionism, which it does. Ergo, I oppose it.

  7. Most early r&d is the product of gov’t spending. Private interests lack the political backbone to take on early r&d – let alone controversial r&d. Almost every medical product on the market today started out with federal funding. Why people are so ignorant about this, I’ll never know. πŸ˜‰

    JMJ

  8. Jersey McJones,

    Most early r&d is the product of gov’t spending.

    This is something of a myth.

  9. “This statement is at odds with the position I usually see advocated about the second-order effects of a lack of government funding for a worthy effort. Suspiciously so, in fact.

    If there isn’t enough federal funding to attract students to field, isn’t that the genius of the market?”

    Joe, Joe, Joe…yeesh!

    Your point might be valid if other competing fields weren’t getting a greater level of federal funding. You can’t talk about the “genius of the market” when the majority of that market is distorted by federal subsidies.

    For example, let’s say corn and cane sugar are both used for sweeteners (hey, they are!). There is $5m in federal funds available for sweetener subsidies. The government decides that corn is better than sugar, and gives $4m to the corn industry, and $1m to the sugar industry.

    Is it then fair to say, “libertarians have no right to criticize this, because if sugar was good enough, it should be able to hack it on its own in the free market!”? Of course not.

    Maybe if there were no federal research grants at all, then nobody would have any reason to complain that stem cell doesn’t get any special favors. But that’s not the case.

  10. Mr. Le Mur,

    That chart means nothing if it isn’t normalized to the rate at which the cost of biomedical research has increased over the same period of time, which I assure you is considerable.

    The points made about disentangling federal funds from research are all dead-on…for better or worse, federal money is everywhere, and the lines are quite blurry. For example, if an academic lab is awarded a grant from a private research foundation to do stem cell work, can they use equipment that they bought with NIH money for the work, or do they have to double up on core resources (we’re talking everything from high-end instrumentation to glassware and refridgerators) to not run afoul of federal guidelines?

    Until those kinds of issues are sorted out, this young scientist isn’t touching anything stem cell with a 10-ft pole. And I know I’m not the only one.

  11. A myth, huh, Hakluyt? Care to try to back that up? (This I have to see…)

    JMJ

  12. I bet they’re getting pretty damned close to finding a cure for one o’ them diseases…

    Are you trying to imply that federally funded research hasn’t contributed anything significant to medicine as a result of those billions? It’s like saying, “We’ve been pouring federal dollars into highways for nigh on a century, yet there still isn’t a road to Hawaii!”

  13. Thank you Mike. You have reaffirmed my faith in humanity.

    JMJ

  14. Hakluyt: I worry about underinvestment in scientific research because private firms fear that they cannot recoup the costs of their discoveries. When I interviewed Stanford economist Paul Romer, he had some interesting things to say about that issue, including:

    “Think about the basic science that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. There are some kinds of ideas where, once those ideas are uncovered, you’d like to make them as broadly available as possible, so everybody in the world can put them to good use. There we find it efficient to give those ideas away for free and encourage everybody to use them. If you’re going to be giving things away for free, you’re going to have to find some system to finance them, and that’s where government support typically comes in.

    In the next century we’re going to be moving back and forth, experimenting with where to draw the line between institutions of science and institutions of the market. People used to assign different types of problems to each institution. “Basic research” got government support; for “applied product development,” we’d rely on the market. Over time, people have recognized that that’s a pretty artificial distinction. What’s becoming more clear is that it’s actually the combined energies of those two sets of institutions, often working on the same problem, that lead to the best outcomes.”

    I recognize the problems, but I haven’t made up my mind on government funding of research.

  15. Jersey McJones,

    In the developed world approximately 2/3rds of R&D is done by industry. And we have plenty of examples of basic research being done by industry, be it in the development of new oil extraction technologies or say the development of the modern P.C. at Xerox Park.

    Ron Bailey,

    The problem of course is that government funded basic research is driven by political concerns, and that makes such research very problematic.

  16. Government funding for medical research should be one of many check-off boxes on a tax return. Do you want to pay for it? Check yes. If not, check no. I don’t know if it would work out well, but it would be interesting to find out.

  17. Ron Bailey,

    And of course there is also the problem that in the case of government regulation of research (e.g., drug creation) one ends up destroying individual choice at the hands of paternalism or drug companies seeking artificial monopolies.

  18. Real Bill:

    Shit, what a great idea. Imagine how many idiot government programs would disappear if people had to vote on them every time they did their tax returns. Bwah ha ha! War on Drugs? Gone. Ag subsidies? Gone.

  19. Hakluyt,

    I’m not sure that ‘development of new oil extraction methodologies’ really counts as basic research. It’s a pretty narrowly applied field of study. It’s certainly not the type of thing that increases our basic understanding of the structure of the earth. It’s not applicable outside the field of oil field management, with the possible exception of somebody trying to use hydrofracking to slowly relieve stress along a fault line to mitigate earthquake hazards.

    The development of PCs, while transformative, was also based largely on government funded research. The first working electronic computers were not PCs, but house-sized calculators for (iirc) working on defense-department calculations.

    Developing PCs or reservoir extraction techniques are examples of applied research that is done quite well in the private sector. I would not call them ‘basic research’.

    Basic research is Miliken’s oil-drop experiment, or the Stern-Gerlach experiment, or the work to discover the double-helix.

  20. Evan,

    Actually, it’s my wife’s idea. She saw me doing our taxes, noticed the presidential campaign check box, and came up with the idea. (She’s a German citizen, so she had never seen a 1040 before. I got lucky and found myself a libertarian woman.)

  21. Hakluyt – not ALL r&d – just pharmies. Go ahead, look it up. I dare you to open your mind to the REALITY of this subject. πŸ˜‰

    Look, there’s a good reason for why the universities are where most of the initial r&d for pharmies are performed. REally, there’s not enough space or time here, but you should read about this. Your ideology should not stand in the way of your worldview.

    Ciao, JMJ

  22. “Hydrofracking” sounds like something out of BSG. Their term for watersports?

  23. Boring.

  24. In our march toward libertopia, we must choose which abuses of power to remove from the earth first. To me, publicly funded medical and fundamental research can be among the last to go.

    My biggest concern is that I have a feeling most of the money is wasted, even if we take a purely utilitarian look at allocation of dollars. There is no justification on the earth for diabetes to receive so little attention once we’ve decided to commit public dollars to research, for example. I have this feeling that we aren’t buying much that is useful precisely because, as Hak points out, the distribution of dollars is political.

    Throw every public dollar at one big killer or major creator of misery. We may at least make a dent that way.

  25. Jersey McJones,

    You do realize that universities receive much of their research money from either private corporations or private endowments often at private universities?

    DaveinBigD,

    Basic research is best described as efforts to add new knowledge to the library of what we already have. Both of my examples fit well within that definition.

  26. Jason Ligon,

    I have this feeling that we aren’t buying much that is useful precisely because, as Hak points out, the distribution of dollars is political.

    Taking away market pressure invariably leads to corruption and ineffeciency.

  27. Basic research is best described as efforts to add new knowledge to the library of what we already have. Both of my examples fit well within that definition.

    Oh god, I’ve gotten into a discussion of semantics. Of course my Sophistry and Rhetoric prof once countered the ‘just semantics’ line with ‘just the relationship between language and reality’, so here goes.

    I’d say that ‘efforts to add new knowledge to the library of what we already know’ would just be called ‘research’. If you’re going to add the ‘applied’ or ‘basic’ modifiers, then ‘basic research’ would be research that’s broadly applicable outside of a narrow industry, while ‘applied research’ is narrowly tailored.

    I’ll give you PARC as a freebie, that could go either way.

    Oil extraction techniques are of absolutely no interest outside the oil industry. Seriously, I’m a geophysicist and that’s a big yawner for me. The only reason to do it is to get oil out of the ground. It doesn’t add anything useful to our understanding of the structures or mechanisms of earth science. If there’s any difference between basic research and applied research, then that’s totally applied.

    There’s certainly a difference between say, Fermilab and PARC, and as much again between PARC and the guys trying to figure out how to get those last few tankersful out of the ground at Prudhoe Bay. Everything the reservoir extraction guys are doing is expected to have a concrete return on investment.

  28. DaveInBigD,

    I don’t see why you add the qualifier that it must be applicable outside a narrow range or field. Anyway, whether my oil industry extraction example is correct we are ignoring my basic point – basic research is done by lots of non-government entities and for reasons not associated with government whims.

    Of course, even if all basic research were done by the government that would not of course be a justification for such. That is no more than any government program is a justification by itself for its existance.

  29. Ronald Bailey,

    You voted for Bush and you “haven’t made up my mind on government funding of research.” What views do you hold that are “libertarian.”

  30. lurker,

    Hopefully Ron Bailey will take Adam Smith’s advice re: government funding of research – that is to seriously consider over a long period of time any interventionist proposal.

  31. Ron’s book, Liberation Biology, easily the best argued and researched volume on the topic, makes the case that:…patients and families should ultimately have the freedom of choice to embrace stem cell and biotech benefits or reject them for personal reasons.

    https://reason.com/lb/

    So from this perspective, it can’t be right to deny individuals choice and force them to pay for reasearch into methods that they object to for personal reasons.

    In his book, Ron sees the primary threat to the fruits of the biotech revolution coming from the government intervention, mostly in the form of proscriptions against various research. But it doesn’t follow at all that government funding of biotech research is a productive, let alone fair thing.

    Ron:

    …as I’ve previously pointed out, federal funding may turn out to be superfluous because there’s no shortage of private and state stem cell research funding.

    So why would we ever want to insert the government into a situation where it’s so manifestly not needed?

    Yet, the federal limits arguably do have a chilling effect on the research, e.g., younger scientists will choose to go into other fields with less controversy.

    There is already controversy, ill conceived as it is, around stem cell research. Is the sided controversy by making it off limits to federal tax dollars really going to exercise that much more of a chilling effect? So I have a question for Ron: If a possible chilling effect is your main objection to a ban of federal funding, and in view of the other stem cell research going on; if you were in congress, how would you vote on the question of tax dollars for stem cell research? Not on a federal ban of the same. I’m just asking about a spending appropriation here.

  32. …Shoulda been:

    “Is the *added* controversy of making it off limits to federal tax dollars really going to exercise that much more of a chilling effect?”

    Sorry

  33. Ron, you’re missing a good conference in Baltimore.

  34. the original ruling is apparently being interpreted to mean that no research can be done in buildings that were built partially with federal money, no equipment can be used that was paid for partially with federal money, etc.

    That probably isn’t the import of the original ruling but this is a problem with federal funds for research, both direct and indirect; interpretations of directives and qualifications which hamstring scientific progress.

  35. joe:

    If there isn’t enough federal funding to attract students to field, isn’t that the genius of the market?

    Not a problem. As Ron points out, there’s no shortage of private and state stem cell research funding.

  36. Enough is enough, Ron. It’s federal funding for a private choice. How hard is this? And they call us Objectivists difficult statists…yeesh. At least we don’t abandon our principles for our pet projects.

  37. Jersey McJones:

    Private interests lack the political backbone to take on early r&d – let alone controversial r&d.

    What?? That’s ridiculous. What r&d is more controversial than stem cell research? And, as has been pointed out; there is no shortage of private stem cell research funding.

    Almost every medical product on the market today started out with federal funding.

    The laugher of the thread! That wouldn’t be true even of medical products which came out last year. Even if federal funding was as efficient as private funding, which it’s not, NIH grants often have a “shown promise” proviso which means that any products that they happen to help engender are the basis of earlier research. For making such an inaccurate statement, Jersey, you should be allowed to use only medical products that started out with federal funding. Better hope ya don’t get sick.

  38. Hakluyt:

    You do realize that universities receive much of their research money from either private corporations or private endowments often at private universities?

    This is a key point, and is a large part of the state funding component of biotech r&d.

  39. Jason Ligon:

    In our march toward libertopia, we must choose which abuses of power to remove from the earth first. To me, publicly funded medical and fundamental research can be among the last to go.

    Jason, that’s just the problem. We aren’t making a march toward libertopia. In fact, liberty is losing badly. Also, tt seems that since medical research is a matter of life and death, it is way too important to let the built in inefficiencies of federal research involvement crowd out the far more productive private sector.

  40. Ron:

    I worry about underinvestment in scientific research because private firms fear that they cannot recoup the costs of their discoveries.

    Two points:

    1. There are private research dollars available for biomed r&d from charitable organizations that are the recipients of contributions from folks who want to crush a certain disease or simply advance the frontiers of medical science.

    2. The point you make is a good calling for a reduction in biz taxes and an increase in tax credits for research.

  41. Reason Pillow Girl:

    Boring.

    If you wanna be our babe, ya gota be smart and interesting as well as cute.

  42. A few thoughts on public funding of science:

    First, I am a federally funded scientist. I do it in a building that is explicitly owned by the feds, but most academic scientists do it in buildings owned by either a private university or a state (not federal) university. Either way, we all know who’s bearing the marginal costs of the research. I’m not here to claim that what I’m doing is kosher on libertarian grounds, I’m just putting that fact out there to be honest.

    Second, how do I reconcile it? I don’t. We live in a world where most academic research (be it basic, applied, or whatever you want to call it) is funded by the feds. By “academic” I mean research that is done with the goal of publishing in academic journals. If I want to pursue this career, which I consider to be a worthy endeavor in its own right (when the question of funding isn’t considered) then this is the way it is.

    So, the question that I ask myself in my career trajectory, and the question that I think should preoccupy libertarian minds, is this: How do we transition science away from public funds? It’s not about whether this or that project should be funded right now, it’s not about whether federal funds should be revoked now or in the final stages before libertopia. It’s about how we take a very good research enterprise and move it toward privatization in a way that preserves its best features. If we had the ability to simply cut off the funding one day and watch it crash, that would not be a victory. It would be a bungling of a legitimate goal.

    And, let’s be honest, America’s research community is pretty damn impressive. Yes, yes, we would be even better if we were privatized. But the point is that scientific research is not the equivalent of, say, the drug war. It isn’t something that should simply end. Rather, it’s like public education: It’s an endeavor that should most definitely continue, but without political involvement or funding. And unlike the k-12 public schools, the public research institutes are (mostly) world-renowned.

    Now, we do have a significant amount of private funding for science. I see that as a model to begin from. But private funding usually takes the form of university endowments, university infrastructure, highly focused awards for very specific projects (e.g. disease foundations), or awards to supplement an investigator’s federal funds.

    University endowments are usually used to meet university overhead, not to pay a researcher’s equipment and staff expenses (the exception being new faculty, who are given start-up packages to get going). Private sources also fund university buildings, hence so many science and engineering buildings are named after a donor. Focused foundations, and awards to prominent researchers, are rarely sufficient to fund more than a fraction of a researcher’s costs. They are usually given with the goal of supplementing funds, not to keep the researcher independent. The bulk of all research journal articles still cite federal sources of funding.

    There are also industrial grants, and those have been growing in size lately, even though they are still a fairly minor portion of the research budget. Some people worry about conflicts of interest, but I haven’t noticed too many problems arising from industrial funds in the people that I know who have received them. The ethical lapses in academic science have mostly resulted from people who think they can become famous by cutting corners, not from people who were taking orders from an unscrupulous paymaster.

    So we have a model to start from, but it needs tweaking. And that’s what we should be thinking about.

    Finally, I am not here to call for federal funds to be allocated towards stem cells. However, if your goal is to transition academic science towards the private sector, it’s best if federal funding policy is neutral on stem cells rather than hostile. If they want researchers to justify their grants by proposing and performing work that doesn’t involve stem cells, that’s fine. But academic labs are fluid places, as Brian pointed out.

    Say a researcher purchases some equipment with NIH funds, does a project, and the project ends and so does the grant. Now he’s got this equipment, and he gets some private funds to use for stem cell research. Since the leftover equipment was purchased with federal money, does he have to replace it with private funds before doing stem cell research? Congress should make it explicitly clear that the answer is no. Otherwise, scientists will be reluctant to seek private funds for projects that the feds don’t fund. The result will be that scientists will be actively discouraged from increasing the amount of private funds that they seek.

    I realize that right now people do exactly what I described for projects that don’t involve stem cells. Most such projects, however, aren’t nearly as controversial. There aren’t any people with zealous opinions who will pull out the fine print of the grant paperwork and search for technicalities if somebody uses an NIH-funded microscope to test a new Parkinson’s drug on mice or whatever. But there are people who will search for technicalities if that NIH-funded microscope is used to study stem cells. We need to remove those technicalities, so that the choice between federal and private funding is not an either-or. Mixed portfolios are crucial to any transition towards privatization.

    That concludes my manifesto. Time to head to Baltimore for yet another day of the physics conference.

  43. I’ll say this much: Whatever our privatization model might be, it shouldn’t involve a state-owned Pakistani company managing nuclear physics labs…. πŸ™‚

  44. thoreau–

    Thanks for writing the post I really wanted to write, but didn’t have the time to because I’m too busy spending my federal money. πŸ˜‰

    I’m also a federally-funded scientist. And don’t think I haven’t struggled with it on libertarian grounds. But the truth is, if you want into this business, the federal money is where it’s at for now and the forseeable future.

    And as much as I’d love to see science completely privatized on ideological grounds, I am actually not convinced that it would work well in practice, at least in my field. Pharma companies are incredibly conservative in what they will put money towards, and even with that, their success rate is orders of magnitude below what would be acceptable in almost any other endeavor I can think of. Take all the basic research that is somewhat insulated from the market by federal funding–which *is* what gives the drug companies most of their “novel” ideas to begin with–out of the equation, and progress in biomedical science grinds down to a crawl.

    I imagine this may have something to do with Mr. Bailey’s reservations on the subject as well, though I would not presume to speak for him…

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