NPR logo Climate, Energy And Stem Cells: Ceding the Frontier

Climate, Energy And Stem Cells: Ceding the Frontier

Uncertainty hangs over the future of federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells like these. Nissim Benvenisty/PLoS Biology hide caption

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Nissim Benvenisty/PLoS Biology

Uncertainty hangs over the future of federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells like these.

Nissim Benvenisty/PLoS Biology

Yesterday's ruling blocking federal research for embryonic stem cells represents a potentially disastrous setback for the field.  Seen in and of itself, the ruling might look like another salvo in America's endless polarizing battle over abortion rights but stepping back a bit shows a far deeper constellation of behaviors at work with much deeper consequences.

We are ceding our leadership in the most vital world arenas of technological innovation to others with stiffer political will and discipline.

The ruling focuses on the what is known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that has been attached to Department of Health and Human Services annual appropriations bills since 1996. Dickey-Wicker prohibits federal funds from supporting research where embryos are destroyed or discarded but it never addressed studies in which the cells are derived from embryos because that field developed later.

By holding that Dickey-Wicker addresses these new forms of researches, the judge hurled the promising scientific field back into the realm of political footballing. Recall that last week polls found 20 percent of Americans still believe the President is a Muslim. Thus, as has become clear, the realm of political football can thrive without a whiff of evidence or reason, both of which constitute the main ingredients of science's atmosphere.

Thus, in spite of the administration's attempts to move beyond hamstringing science for political points, the nation as a whole continues to slide down that slippery slope. Stem cells can now be added to other key domains of science/technology like climate and energy policy.

But other countries aren't playing this game.

A report released last week shows the rapid progress Europe has made in shifting its energy use to renewable forms.  As Elisabeth Rosenthal reports:

From 2008 to 2009 alone, the use of renewable energy in the European Union increased 8.3 percent. As I’ve reported as part of our continuing series, “Beyond Fossil Fuels,” some countries have made particularly great strides in this arena. Portugal now gets nearly 45 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, up from 17 percent five years ago.

On the climate front other nations, our competitor nations, are already making the moves to shift from carbon intensive economies. As Thomas Friedman has noted, China is already making this shift.  From The China Daily:

The country is set to begin domestic carbon trading programs during its 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015) to help it meet its 2020 carbon intensity target. ... Putting a price on carbon is a crucial step for the country to employ the market to reduce its carbon emissions and genuinely shift to a low-carbon economy, industry analysts said.

Meanwhile we have all but given up on an energy/climate bill.  The continued ability for politics in this country to hijack scientific consensus means that we sit on our hands while other nations have the will to act.

The 20th century was an American century because we managed to marshal the science and technologies of the age and lead the world across new frontiers.  Now we are ceding those frontiers to others as we allow the ragged edges of our politics greater voice than the science that once animated our greatness.  It is not too late to stop the slide but the first step is to pull our heads out of our local squabbles and take a broader view.

The world is moving on — with or without us.