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promise them anything

By Diogenes (articles ) | Aug 24, 2010

Read all the mainstream-media coverage of Judge Royce Lamberth’s decision to stop federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and you may notice that two major themes emerge. Neither theme is inaccurate, yet both are misleading.

First, the conventional accounts remind readers that embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) has great potential.

It is “promising but controversial research,” says the Wall Street Journal. It is a “promising new science,” Time magazine agrees. Scientists “hope to be able to use” ESCR to treat many diseases, Reuters reports. The Los Angeles Times cites a White House spokesman who said judge’s decision “carries the potential to block ‘critical, life-saving research.’" [My emphasis throughout]

Promise... promising… potential…hope. What you don’t see, in all those news accounts, is a report that scientists have used ESCR successfully to treat diseases, or are using ESCR in clinical settings right now. You don’t even read about successful ESCR experiments that could soon lead to medical breakthroughs.

Yes, ESCR “could” produce impressive results—at some point in the indefinite future. But right now, despite all the hoopla of the past decade, the medical cupboard is dry. Research using adult stem cells has produced a variety of impressive results; work with embryonic stem cells has not.

You could say that ESCR is the “most promising” line of research, in the sense that the researchers involved have definitely been doing the most promising. They’ve been promising great things, and to date delivering nothing.

When the White House says that Judge Lamberth’s decision has the “potential” to block critical research, that’s true, too. If the judge’s decision survives appeal, and if Congress does not take action to reverse the effect, and if the executive branch doesn’t find a way around the existing law, then some research could be stopped—or, to be more precise, some research would have to continue without federal funding. So the decision has the potential to stop some research that has the potential to discover potential cures.

Meanwhile research using adult stem cells continues, without the ballyhoo, but with more impressive results. Which leads us to the second theme in today’s news coverage. 

The conventional accounts remind readers that embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) is opposed by pro-lifers and Christian activists. That is certainly true, but not entirely relevant to this case. The case that prompted Judge Lamberth’s ruling was not brought by pro-life activists. It was brought by scientists who were looking for a fair chance to gain financial support for their research using adult stem cells.

Federal funding, you see, does not come from a bottomless well. If the lion’s share of federal researching funding is allotted for—or should I say “promised” for-- ESCR, then some other scientists will find it difficult to obtain the needed funds for their own experiments. Today’s news stories, reacting to Judge Lamberth’s decision, quote many scientists who fear that they may be forced to pare their research budgets, or (horrors!) seek private funding for their work. The stories don’t mention the other scientists who might finally have a fighting chance at funding for their own experiments: scientists who until now have been locked out of the competition, because they have continued to work with adult stem cells sources rather than climbing on the ESCR bandwagon.

To review, then:

After years of hype, reporters are accustomed to thinking reflexively about embryonic stem-cell research. Two themes in particular have been deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the mainstream media: that ESCR has great “promise” and that opposition to ESCR is motivated by pro-life principles (which, in turn, are categorized as sectarian religious beliefs). Those themes are seductive because they are mostly accurate. Great promises have been made for ESCR, and pro-lifers do oppose the research. But the story doesn’t end there.

What’s more promising than embryonic stem-cell research? Research using stem cells taken from adults. Who’s more likely than a pro-life activist to oppose ESCR? A researcher using stem cells taken from adults. Do you see another theme emerging here? If reporters paid more attention to researchers who are experimenting with stem cells taken from adult sources, they would be capable of writing more balanced, informative stories about the ESCR-funding controversy.

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