Editorial: Ending the war on science

Published in The Hindu on May 6, 2009

One of the significant promises made by Barrack H. Obama during his campaign for the presidency was ending the Bush administration’s “war on science where ideology trumps scientific inquiry and politics replaces expert opinion.” Stem cell researchers are already cheering President Obama’s overturning, through an executive order, of his predecessor’s policy of placing unwarranted restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. Bush administration policy prohibited the use of federal funds to create new embryonic stem cell lines and, as a kind of compromise, allowed scientists to work with 21 already created lines. Under the draft guidelines on human stem cell research released recently by the National Institutes of Health, thousands of embryonic stem cell lines will become eligible for federal funding. The guidelines spell out that stem cell lines that are derived from embryos created by in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) for reproductive uses and are no longer needed for these purposes will qualify for funding. The NIH estimates that there are already 700 stem cell lines. There is disappointment among scientists that the restrictions on federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived through cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer will continue. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which remains on the statute book, forbids federal assistance for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or research in which embryos are destroyed.

Easing the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is just one of several steps Mr. Obama has taken to fulfil his promise to ensure that “scientific decisions [are] based on facts, not ideology.” Within days of assuming office, he signed an executive order to ensure that U.S. support to international aid groups providing abortion services round the world was not affected. More significant was the overturning of his predecessor’s policy of withholding funding for the needle and syringe exchange programme that helps reduce HIV incidence. Moving in tandem, a federal court in New York recently ordered the Food and Drug Administration to make the morning-after contraceptive pill available without prescription to 17-year-old women. The court observed that the FDA’s 2006 decision to make the pill available across the counter only to women aged 18 and above was made “at the behest of political actors.” One lesson the 44th President of the U.S. needs to learn from far-Right Republicans relates to providing legislative protection to politically contentious policies so that future administrations cannot easily reverse them.