Obama offers scientists hope for renewed stem cell research

On the night of Nov. 4, as Yale students saturated Old Campus with jubilant brass bands, tears of joy and outbursts of patriotic song to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, scientists across campus may have been cracking open champagne bottles too.

From the top of Science Hill down to the Medical School, Yale researchers expressed varying degrees of optimism toward improvements the Obama administration hopes to bring to the scientific community. According to his campaign Web site, the president-elect plans on doubling basic research funding over the next four years, as well as placing a stronger national emphasis on the sciences and technology. While some remain skeptical, many science professors described a palpable atmosphere of hope — a sense of “turning a corner,” as one scientist put it — among their colleagues since Obama’s election.

Prospects for science researchers have looked grim in recent memory, but there is growing sentiment that increased research spending might make economic sense, too.

The past five years have seen the budget of the National Institutes of Health — a primary source of grant money for scientists at universities across the country — decline in purchasing power by nearly 15 percent, Thomas Pollard, Sterling professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology, said.

“The research community has been suffering from retraction of our support system,” he said. “This is discouraging for everyone.”

Without strong federal backing, the NIH has had to be conservative in offering grant money to fund science research, he said.

But many scientists interviewed said they have a good feeling about funding prospects over the next four years.

During the presidential campaign, Obama discussed the possibility of continually increasing the NIH budget at a rate to outpace inflation.

“That sort of steady growth would stabilize the research community and restore confidence that has been lost during five years of flat funding,” Pollard said.

Benefits to the research community aside, scientists argue that increased federal spending may also help relieve economic malaise.

Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern, while “cautiously optimistic,” noted that President-elect Obama believes funding medical research is a good economic stimulus because it causes “a multiplier effect,” meaning that increased spending on research bolsters other industries, such as the production of scientific supplies. He said he found this encouraging, given the current economic situation.

By his estimation, allocating more money to the NIH would kill two birds with one stone — both stimulating the economy and advancing research in one fell swoop.

Pollard agreed, adding that federal money invested into research is spent quickly, which pumps money into the economy.

“Research spending is a sound investment, in contrast to large public works projects,” he said. “Money allocated for research is spent in months rather than years.”

The research community is hopeful that the NIH will be included in an economic stimulus package early next year, Pollard said.

Dr. Flora Vaccarino, associate professor at Yale Medical School, whose research focuses on stem cells, said she is encouraged by the prospect of reform in her line of work as well.

Under the Bush administration, it is illegal to experiment with embryonic stem cells using federally funded equipment or facilities. Moreover, scientists are not allowed to extract stem cells from discarded embryos at abortion clinics, which makes deriving new cell lines impossible in the United States, Vaccarino said.

Compounding the problem, no federal institutes are permitted to extend funding to the study of embryonic stem cells, she added.

“Such research is already completely legal in many countries — even in the United Kingdom,” she said.

She compared the present situation to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church restricted the study of human anatomy.

“But people still did it anyway,” said Vaccarino. “So why not promote stem cell research in the United States, where it can be properly supervised?”

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama has made it clear: he will revise the restrictions on stem cell research imposed by Bush, Dr. Pollard said. Pollard and Alpern both predicted that Obama will follow through, indicating they thought the bans on stem cell research would come down soon after the new president takes office.

The two scientists, however, disagreed on the exact date that change would come. Whereas Pollard expects that revisions may come as soon as Jan. 20, 2009, Alpern was slightly more conservative in his time frame, targeting Jan. 21.

But Vaccarino, while optimistic that Obama will not be afraid of making bold reforms, remains somewhat skeptical.

“After all, I’m a scientist,” she said with a laugh.

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