Bush War on Medical Research Defeats Republican Senate


Sure, the biggest factor in the Republican loss of Congress was public discontent with the war in Iraq. Even so, Republicans would have held control of the Senate if the Bush administration were not waging a second war on major elements of modern medical research. 

Fact: The Bush administration has done almost everything in its power to limit advances in embryonic stem cell research, from President Bush’s first presidential address (limiting funding of research to a small number of contaminated cell lines) to his first (and to date only) veto of a bill that would have allowed some of the tens of thousands of left over fertilized eggs from IVF treatments to be used for research instead of being destroyed. This is probably the first time in modern history that the federal government has intentionally slowed potential medical progress. 

Fact: Republicans lost the Senate by one seat.

Fact: Republican incumbent Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, a foe of stem cell research, lost to Senator-elect Claire McCaskill by less than 3 percent of the vote at the same time as a hotly contended ballot initiative supporting stem cell research in Missouri passed. Talent’s margin of defeat was smaller than the ballot initiative’s margin of victory. In other words, had President Bush not vetoed the stem cell bill a few weeks ago, Talent almost certainly would have been reelected, and the Senate would still be in Republican hands.
 
Fact: Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia, another stem cell foe (who had plenty of other problems in his campaign) lost by a fraction of a percent to Senator-elect James Webb. Despite Senator Allen’s troubled campaign, it is likely he would have been reelected if the stem cell issue were not involved. The Northern Virginia economy is knowledge-driven, and the stem cell controversy almost certainly cost him the four thousand votes he needed from educated, moderate Republicans in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
 
Conclusion: Republicans lost control of the Senate because of the Bush position on stem cell research.
 
The Bush anti-research bias runs even deeper than the well-publicized stem cell debate. Under President Bush, funding for all NIH-supported health care research has not kept pace with inflation or with basic research’s historic share of spending. Even worse, many researchers have reported to me that NIH has become strongly biased against the traditional promising but lower probability projects in favor of less interesting, lower risk, lower reward science.
 
Recently, I attended the Tony and Shelly Malkin Symposium on Stem Cell Research, a wonderful annual event in Boston that brings together scientists in the field from all over the world. 

In the subject in which I happen to have the strongest personal interest, Parkinson’s Disease research, three Boston-based research projects were presented by three of leading junior scientists in the field.  One was German, one Italian and one Spanish (two of the three were women). Where were the American scientists? They cannot all be working at hedge funds. It seems that our federal anti-science policies are driving the best American researchers to other fields. 
 
Today, Americans are the most religious citizens of any industrialized nation. We are also the most pragmatic, and it is time for practicality to reassert itself in health science research. Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University, often quotes an amazing study of attitudes about progress in the U.S. over the past 50 years.  When asked whether people would prefer to (a) have today’s quality of health care, with all its flaws, and everything else in our lives at the standard of living of the 1950’s, or (b) have 1950’s health care with everything else in our lives at today’s standard, an overwhelming majority of Americans pick the first option. This means Americans think that the fraction of 1% of GNP spent on health science research in the past 50 years has produced more benefit to our standard of living than all other progress combined.  Yet current public policy is now holding back medical progress in this benefit.

All Republicans, including moderate Republicans, have paid a huge political price in this election for the Bush antipathy to science. Even the Republicans most opposed to stem cell research are worse off with Democrats now controlling the Senate and the procedural mechanisms for all Presidential appointees, including judges. This loss is likely to trickle over into potentially bad-for-business tax and regulatory policies, like delay in Sarbanes Oxley reform. 

An anti-science agenda is bad for science, bad for human health, bad for job creation and bad for business.