The United States Congress and more than 28 state legislatures have considered spending billions of taxpayer dollars on stem cell research over the next several years. The National Institutes of Health has already committed billions. And in 2004, California voters approved the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, also known as the Proposition 71 bond measure, which authorized the state to raise $3 billion over 10 years to fund such research. Though debates rage over the ethics of research using human embryonic stem cells, a more fundamental question has been ignored in this debate: Is stem cell research a sensible expenditure of taxpayer dollars? This is not a question of whether the research should be conducted, but whether public funding for it is justified.
Government 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. Each stem cell project is highly speculative, and it is not the place of government to gamble with taxpayers’ money.
Unlike most cells in the human body, stem cells can develop into different types of cells and regenerate continuously. This suggests that stem cells may be broadly useful in treating a number of chronic and degenerative diseases. Adult stem cells are already being tested for the treatment of heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, type 1 diabetes, advanced kidney cancer, and spinal injury. Cord blood stem cell transplants are used in therapies for leukemias and lymphomas. And, in at least one experiment in mice, the onset of a form of Tay-Sachs disease was delayed by injecting the mice with stem cells taken from human embryonic stem cells.
However, at this point in time, no one knows how successful any of these lines of research may actually turn out to be or when any genuine medical treatments might become available. Embryonic stem cells are clearly the most versatile, but scientists have not yet been consistently able to control the growth of embryonic stem cells. Their interactions with other cells often cause unpredictable growth patterns, including tumors, and tissue rejection responses. Indeed, in a 2006 report, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences cautioned that research leading to the development of feasible therapies can take years or even decades. And, once the therapeutic applications are developed, those applications need to be tested to show that they are safe, which adds additional years to the development of viable treatment options. Consequently, politicians who promise cures in the near future for cancer and Parkinson’s disease, lower future health care costs, and a booming biotechnology economy are being disingenuous.
Furthermore, there is little risk that stem cell research will go unfunded. Biotech companies, philanthropic organizations, and individuals have already invested billions of dollars in such research, and they show no sign of stopping. It is worth noting that the most important breakthrough in the field, the 1998 discovery of human embryonic stem cells and their unspecialized, self-renewing nature by University of Wisconsin professor James Thomson, was the result of privately funded research. And Thomson’s research utilized embryos derived from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics, another private funding success story.
Just as public funding advocates argue now with regard to stem cell research, in the 1970s and 1980s, scientists lobbied the federal government to support research on new reproductive technologies, including IVF. Advocates insisted that funding IVF research was crucial for the United States to maintain its position as a leader in reproductive medicine, and they argued that infertile Americans would have to go abroad for the reproductive health care they should be receiving at home. However, public research funding advocates lost that debate. No human IVF research was ever federally funded, and there is no evidence that it has been ever funded by any state. Still, a number of IVF researchers continued their work with private funds. Within a short time, the United States became the global leader in reproductive medicine. Today in the United States, IVF for humans is estimated as a $3 billion a year industry—all of it developed without any government funding.
Similarly, private sector investment in the biotechnology industry and generous philanthropic contributions from charitable foundations and individual donors have already pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into stem cell research in the United States alone. For example, while politics delayed the disbursement of Proposition 71 research grants, individual philanthropists donated more than $250 million to state universities to conduct stem cell research. And, in 2001, Harvard University, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and Boston IVF began a collaborative human embryonic stem cell research project; by early 2004 they had developed 17 new human embryonic stem cell lines without any government assistance.
More importantly, the politicized nature of the public debate over stem cell research threatens to spill over into and disrupt the research itself. The prospect of public funding so angers some Americans that it has spurred movements to restrict private stem cell research efforts. Under such circumstances, government funding for stem cell research is more hindrance than help to the advancement of science.
Californians were optimistic when Proposition 71 passed in 2004, but the initiative has been plagued by problems since its inception, and its implementation has left much to be desired. From 2004 to 2006, two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 71 prevented the disbursement of any public funds for stem cell research. In addition, disputes over how funds are to be disbursed, as well as how licensing and royalty agreements are to be structured, remain unresolved. The political nature of government funding means more delays to the already lengthy research process and makes financial returns on taxpayer dollars even more doubtful.
While political squabbles continue to stymie public funding for stem cell research, enterprising private companies, foundations, and individuals have invested or donated funds, not only for general stem cell research, but also for testing potential therapies and related products. Government programs, such as California’s Proposition 71, are bureaucratic, wasteful, and mired in political controversy. As a result, the percentage of funds spent on actual research is low. Experience shows that it is possible to retain America’s dominance in biotechnology without government funding, and current research continues to prove that private funding produces results more efficiently and effectively. No matter how much public funding proponents promise, the best way to make progress in stem cell research is to allow the private sector to grow, unimpeded by cumbersome regulation and political controversy.