Obama would free up work on stem cells

Delight at pledge to lift research restrictions and boost science funding. Zoe Corbyn reports

September 11, 2008

International researchers have welcomed comments by US presidential candidate Barack Obama that he would reverse current restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research in the US and increase science funding.

The commitment was revealed as the Democrat hopeful provided answers to 14 questions on science policy posed by the ScienceDebate 2008 campaign at the end of last month. The campaign, led by US scientists and engineers with the support of numerous organisations, aims to raise the profile of debate on scientific issues in the US presidential campaign.

On stem-cell research, Mr Obama said: "I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on funding of human embryonic stem-cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations ... As president, I will lift the current Administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem-cell lines created after 9 August 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight."

Mr Obama also vowed to increase research funding in physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering "at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade".

"We will increase research grants for early career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defence programmes," he said.

On policies for climate change, he said there could "no longer" be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and the US must "take long-overdue action here at home" to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. "I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050," he said.

Shawn Otto, chief executive of the ScienceDebate 2008 campaign, said he was pleased that Mr Obama has provided voters with a "substantive plan". He was hoping for a "similarly thoughtful" response from rival John McCain. It is not clear whether the Republican candidate will maintain the current Administration's stance on stem-cell research.

Ben Sykes, a spokesman for the UK National Stem Cell Network of researchers, said the stranglehold on US funding was frustrating. He said a freer research environment in the US would not be bad news for UK stem-cell research, which has benefited from being one of the most scientifically liberal countries to work in. In any case, he said, many US researchers had already set up spin-off companies to continue their work privately. "(Reversing restrictions) will take the brakes off (US) stem-cell research and increase the number of publications, but I don't think the strength of the UK research base will be damaged," he said.

The questions for the presidential candidates were compiled from submissions made by 38,000 signatories to the campaign. Organisers also invited the presidential candidates to discuss their differences in a televised forum, saying recent polls had shown 85 per cent of voters wanted more debate on science issues.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

www.sciencedebate2008.com.

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