While last week's passage of the stem cell research bill by the House of Representatives made a big splash, it's really almost a non-event. It will simply replay President Bush's veto from last year. The real stem cell funding news was in Albany. There, New York's new governor is proposing that some serious public money back embryonic stem cell research. But the proposal may not be what first meets the eye.
Liberal darling Gov. Elliot Spitzer proposed $2 billion for stem cell and other biotech research, paid by bonds. Since California's $3 billion program, this is the first stem cell research proposal of real significance; the other "stem cell states" have been setting aside small, token amounts. New York's proposal would need to be approved by both houses of the state legislature, as well as by voters. It remains unclear how the program would balance the stem cell component with the other biomedical research.
What is clear is that, from the perspective of rescuing human embryonic stem cell research from President Bush's policy, such state programs are less and less relevant. Bush's restrictions on federal support will almost certainly be quickly repealed by the next president, regardless of his or her party. New York's funds wouldn't be available until mid-2008 at the soonest, while a new president will be inaugurated in January 2009.
It's simple: If the goal is saving lives, shouldn't embryonic stem cell research compete for public research dollars on equal footing with other biomedical endeavors? If so, then why set aside billions of state dollars for this fairly narrow range of work? One possible answer is that the work is, in fact, not so narrow. Both California's program and New York's proposal can support other biomedical research.
Perhaps sugar coating a multi-billion dollar subsidy for the biotech industry with a layer of politically-sweet stem cell research makes the pill go down smoothly for voters in blue states. The question remains, though, whether this is the right medicine for what ails New Yorkers and Californians.