Stem cell funding is state’s golden opportunity

For nearly four years, federal limits on research into embryonic stem cells have resulted in a missed opportunity. Now, it appears this lost opportunity presents a golden chance for Connecticut and for Yale.

Citing the “sacred gift” of life, President George W. Bush ’68 banned the federal government from funding research on all but a few dozen lines of embryonic stem cells that already existed in labs in 2001. For Americans who thought recognizing the value of life meant trying to use those cells to cure chronic diseases ranging from Parkinson’s to diabetes, however, Bush’s decision appeared to bring research in this promising area to a standstill. But in November, Californian voters offered an alternative, voting to borrow $3 billion over the next decade to fund stem cell research in their state’s labs. And now, with the support of Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and Democratic leaders in both houses of the General Assembly, Connecticut appears likely to fund millions of dollars worth of stem cell research as well.

There should be no illusions: Creating a patchwork system of funding for scientific research is not ideal. Concentrating research only in those states willing to spend their own money on stem cells limits the number of top-flight institutions where new breakthroughs and discoveries can be made. And without a strong federal initiative for stem cell research, Connecticut taxpayers will be forced to shoulder the burden for projects that could make the citizens of Arkansas and Montana healthier, too.

But with no sign that President Bush is going to reverse his 2001 order, Connecticut will benefit from funding its own research, and not just because stem cells offer such promise for medical advances. By making the state a hub for cutting-edge investigation, Connecticut will almost certainly attract top researchers from parts of the country where such work is still out of the question. That talent will not just strengthen the faculties of Yale and the University of Connecticut, where the research will be centered — it may also draw investment into the start-ups that can emerge out of academic research.

But Connecticut is not the only state that has realized these benefits. In addition to California, Wisconsin, Illinois and New Jersey are all considering stem cell initiatives of their own. That means that Connecticut must either make a significant commitment to funding stem cell research, or risk losing out to states that recognize the magnitude of this opportunity. For proof of that risk, look no farther than Yale’s own Diane Krause, a stem cell researcher from the School of Medicine who has already been offered jobs in out-of-state labs. That’s why, in debating how much money to dedicate toward stem cell research — the governor has proposed between $10 million and $20 million, while Democrats in the State Capitol have pushed for funding as high as $100 million — Connecticut should consider what it needs to do to position itself at the center of this new field.

Since 2001, the federal government has squandered its chances to explore the enormous potential of embryonic stem cells. Four years later, Connecticut must ensure it does not make the same mistake.