A few weeks ago Nobel Prizes were awarded to the first scientist who cloned a vertabrate and the first scientist to turn an adult cell into something like a primitive stem cell. These achievements remind us of the power of modern biology. That the two winners were British and Japanese, however, should remind us that our country, still the world's leader in science, can't rest on its laurels.
As if to emphasize the point, last week 68 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter endorsing President Obama's reelection. Obama "understands the key role science has played in building a prosperous America, has delivered on his promise to renew our faith in science-based decision making and has championed investment in science and technology research that is the engine of our economy," they wrote. "He has built strong programs to educate young Americans in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and programs to provide Americans the training they need to keep pace with a technology-driven economy."
Stem cell research is a good example. Labs at Yale, Harvard, the Salk Institute and other American research centers are working with human embryonic stem cells that the Obama administration's policies have made available to federally supported science, after eight years of restrictions under President Bush. Their work is focused on questions about diseases like dementia, diabetes and stroke.
But there's no guarantee that American leadership in science will continue. Elections have consequences for science, as they do for the rest of our innovation economy. The election of President Obama four years ago is a case in point. Stanford researchers have found that the number of science papers from U.S. labs on human embryonic stem cells has soared under President Obama, from 61 in 1998-2004 to more than 500 in the past four years. Eventually that work will translate into Nobel prizes for Americans and, equally important, it will translate into new treatments, wealth and jobs for Americans.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently asked the Romney campaign whether he would pull back federal funding for embryonic stem cells if elected in November. The Romney campaign said in a statement that "He believes that, instead, federal funding should be limited to research involving adult stem cells or alternate methods that do not require embryo farming or cloning."
But the Romney campaign did not explain what they meant by "embryo farming" or "cloning," both terms that are meant to sound scary and are borrowed from radical conservative talking points a decade old. In fact, nothing like this actually happens in labs. Even under President Obama, federal funds may not be used to destroy human embryos -- only to study scientific properties of their derivative lines.
Nor did the Romney campaign say what the "alternative methods" are, nor how those methods will benefit medical science. As Stanford's Christopher Scott has documented, the products of federally funded embryonic stem cell science, including the cell lines approved under President Obama, are making it possible to perform studies that could not otherwise be done, including lab comparisons with so-called adult stem cells.
In the heat of a presidential election campaign it's easy to lose sight of the long-term. According to another Nobel Prize winner, the MIT economist Robert Solow, half of the growth of the U.S. economy since World War II is directly attributable to innovations in science and technology. Much of President Obama's stimulus package went to research institutions, resulting in billions of dollars to science labs and keeping thousands of scientists creating new basic knowledge that could not be done by private industry and helps sustain America's innovation economy.
But because science is always a long-term investment, the real fruits of that investment might not be known for a decade or more. And what seems trivial to non-scientists like me can be crucial for later breakthroughs. One of the two new Nobel laureates did his prize-winning work in 1962 with the humble tadpole.
Short-term thinking is characteristic of the GOP presidential ticket's approach to science: according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Congressman Ryan's budge plan could cut spending on non-defense-related research and development by 5 percent, or $3.2 billion, below the fiscal-year 2012 budget.
Underlying the Romney-Ryan agenda is a fundamental mistrust of the power of modern biology, of which stem cell research is but a symbol. There's little doubt that a Romney presidency would take us back to old restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, perhaps far worse than in the Bush years. Considering the progress now being made, that would be bad enough. But, in fact, federal support for many fields of biotechnology would be threatened because some activists object to the implications of experimental biology and its ability to manipulate basic cellular life processes.
At the end of the day the embryonic stem cell debate has always been a stand-in for a more profound question: Can human beings be trusted as the stewards of nature? It is a question that should stimulate our vigilance but should not cause us to turn our backs on a more prosperous American future.