Pittsburgh funding in peril over fetal research

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania hold up state’s budget as part of demand that university gets no money if valued research involving aborted tissue persists

July 7, 2022
Cathedral of Learning building at the University of Pittsburgh
Source: iStock

The University of Pittsburgh has resisted a demand from some Pennsylvania lawmakers that it halt all fetal tissue research in return for its regular state funding, in the latest major bid by US politicians for academic control.

The campaign by a number of Republican lawmakers to stop fetal research was a central factor in the state’s failure to craft a budget by the constitutional deadline at the beginning of the month.

It also was regarded as part of a wider effort by some Republicans to punish the university for the role played by Mark Nordenberg, the previous chancellor at Pitt, in serving on a bipartisan panel charged with deciding the boundaries of state legislative districts.

The drama was the latest in an escalating series of attempts by state lawmakers in the US – Florida being the most prominent example in recent months – to impose partisan agendas on academic governance.

The showdown also revives a regular back-and-forth, generally between the Democratic and Republican parties, over the wisdom and propriety of scientific research involving tissue from aborted fetuses. Conservatives have expressed moral objections, while many scientists and others have described the unique value of cells from the earliest stage of human development in the study and treatment of conditions that include cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and many others.

The University of Pittsburgh – with more than 18,000 full-time undergraduates – receives more than $150 million (£125 million) a year from its state government. The university has said the money covers the cost of a $15,000-per-year tuition discount for its in-state students.

University officials declined to discuss the state budget showdown and possible outcomes while lawmakers were still negotiating the matter. They issued a brief written statement saying that they were “optimistic the legislature will preserve this investment in our students”.

The state’s governor, Tom Wolf, was among numerous Democrats calling for an end to the threat, saying in a written response to questions that he “supports funding our state-related universities without caveats”.

Republican leaders in Pennsylvania were split over the matter, leading to predictions that Pitt eventually would obtain its state funding.

Numerous federal and state laws govern research involving human fetal tissue, aimed at ensuring its ethical use. The University of Pittsburgh, in response to political pressure, commissioned an outside study last year that found the institution in compliance with those laws.

The outside report, by the Washington-based law firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, counted 31 individual research studies at Pitt using human fetal tissue since 2001. Other than “a handful” of documents with administrative errors, university scientists and officials obtained consent documents and met other requirements for their work, the report said.

Pitt officials said their researchers obtained nearly $600 million in total funding last year from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the leading supplier of basic research money to US universities. The officials said they had no breakdown of what share involved fetal tissue, though they noted the entire NIH reported that it spent barely more than $100 million nationwide on research involving fetal tissue in 2019, when it had an annual budget around $40 billion.

Research involving foetal tissue was sharply restricted during the Trump administration, in a move typical of Republican presidential administrations. NIH officials also were reported by BuzzFeed News to have avoided publicising scientific advances deriving from that work in a bid to fit within the anti-abortion politics of the Trump administration. Restrictions on scientific work involving fetal tissue have generally been lifted or eased by the Biden administration.


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