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Obama Acts on Stem Cells, Scientific Integrity

Executive order lifts funding limits to stem cell research, while memo moves to keep politics out of science

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Executive order lifts funding limits to stem cell research, while memo moves to keep politics out of science

President Barack Obama signed an executive order and memo on March 9 th to lift an eight-year limit on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research and restore scientific integrity to federal decisions.

Researchers can now get federal support for human embryonic stem cell research.

The executive order lifts a 2001 order by then-President George W. Bush, which limited federal funding to research involving only the human embryonic stem cell lines in existence at that time. Some 20 viable lines fall into this category, but they are not therapeutically usable because they are contaminated with mouse feeder cells.

Reversing this policy opens up significant funding sources to "vigorously support scientists who pursue this research," Obama said at a press conference.

"We have many unanswered questions, and the only way to realize the full potential of embryonic stem cells and other types of stem cells is a level playing field and unfettered inquiry," said James Thomson, professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Thomson's work yielded the first isolated human embryonic stem cell line in 1998.

As part of the new executive order, the National Institutes of Health is charged with developing a strict set of ethical guidelines for scientists. The President also called on Congress to take action to provide further support for this area of study.

Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.), coauthors of the stem cell bill that Congress passed twice but Bush vetoed on both occasions, praised Obama's actions and said they intended to have the order codified by moving to have Congress pass their bill again.

"We need to pass legislation quickly to codify this so it's not a ping pong" issue that gets batted around by different administrations, DeGette said at a press conference. In addition, Obama also signed an executive memo to protect scientific integrity in research. The memo aims to ensure public policy is based on the soundness of science, Obama said.

The memo directs the head of the Office of Science & Technology Policy to develop a strategy to protect science integrity, 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 as the confirmation of Obama's pick to head OSTP, John Holdren, has been anonymously put on hold in the Senate for unrelated reasons.

Susan R. Morrissey is the Assistant Managing Editor at Chemical & Engineering News. She currently covers science policy at the National Institutes of Health, and general science policy issues.