Scaring Off Science

Opponents of Stem Cell Research in Missouri Are Hurting Science in the State

The latest attempt by conservative lawmakers in Missouri to derail embryonic stem cell research entails trying to cut funding for university buildings because they fear the facilities may be used for embryonic stem cell research. If the legislature follows through with this or other attempts to stymie science in the state, it could have a lasting and detrimental effect on Missouri’s ability to remain competitive in biomedical research.

On Wednesday, the State Senate Education Committee narrowly voted to eliminate $113 million from a $350 million higher education initiative proposed by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, claiming the funds could indirectly support embryonic stem cell research in the future. They also restricted stem cell research in facilities built with the remaining funds to a limited number of stem cell lines.

This most recent effort by conservatives in Missouri to subvert embryonic stem cell research is both drastic and misguided. The proposed money, which would go to classrooms, laboratories, and efforts to encourage research-based business at universities, would fund a broad range of research areas, not just stem cell research. Further, restrictions on the use of the facilities built with the funds will continue to limit researchers even if the federal government updates its stem cell policy.

Such drastic steps send a terrible message, not just to stem cell researchers, but to scientists and biomedical companies across the state. Previous attempts to ban research such as therapeutic cloning caused great concern within the scientific community; in 2004, Dr. William Neaves, President of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, warned that “the damage [from anti-research legislation] would extend far beyond regenerative medicine to every field of biomedical research.”

In the wake of Missourians’ support for embryonic stem cell research, marked by the passage of a statewide constitutional amendment protecting the research, it appeared as if these concerns would finally be laid to rest. Scientists welcomed the new amendment, and the Stowers Institute was able to proceed with plans to construct a 600,000-sq.-ft. research facility in Missouri.

But opponents of the research refuse to listen to the public, and instead seem intent on scaring biomedical researchers out of the state. Lawmakers first proposed putting a new amendment on the ballot in 2008 to repeal aspects of the previous amendment to protect embryonic stem cell research. Then, Gov. Blunt limited funding designated to support research in the life sciences to biofuels, plants and animals, excluding embryonic stem cell research. The Governor denied charges that he was purposefully diverting funds away from stem cell research, but in the previous year lawmakers refused to appropriate any of the money for fear that it would go to embryonic stem cell research.

These types of actions are read as warning signs throughout the scientific community to stay away from Missouri. Scientific research, particularly in the life sciences, is extremely interconnected; research in one area of biomedicine is tremendously helpful to research in another area, and scientists frequently collaborate with their colleagues in other fields of biomedical science. Thus, restricting research into embryonic stem cell research has a detrimental effect on biomedical research across the state, a billion dollar industry in Missouri, and makes it seem inhospitable to scientists.

The latest legislative action also threatens to relegate Missouri’s public university system to permanent second-class status in biology. While private institutions in Missouri would be able to take the lead in regenerative medicine, the most promising new field of biomedical research, the taxpayers will be supporting colleges that are not permitted to participate in cutting-edge science. Be assured that Missouri’s state university leaders are deeply concerned that their institutions are being used as pawns in this political game, whether they feel free to say so publicly or not.

Worst of all, recent legislative action shows the indiscriminate damage conservative lawmakers are willing to inflict on any and all scientific research in order to limit embryonic stem cell research. In their single-minded efforts to restrict this research they have twice attempted to cut funding that would be used for research in a number of other scientific fields.

Restricting funding in these ways will create a climate that is toxic for science of any kind; who knows what research will be stymied because of perceived ties to facilities or universities that undertake constitutionally protected embryonic stem cell research as well. Such an environment will discourage scientists and biotech investors from entering the state, causing them to start asking: “What’s the matter with Missouri?”