As the No. 1 economy in the world, we Americans have come to expect competition on all fronts. Wars today are waged in the commercial trenches by aggressive countries on the move. The winners in these battles typically have government policymakers at their backside, greasing the wheels of industry to produce better outcomes. In these wars, it makes no sense to shoot yourself deliberately in the foot, but that is exactly what the Bush/Cheney administration did with their highly controversial bans on stem-cell research funding.
This topic is one of many of the forgotten blunders of Republican nearsightedness. When there is an overt attempt to reward a major portion of your political constituency, in this case the evangelical right and the Catholic Church, the results can often be undesirable and run counter to our nation’s best interests. One of the first tenets taught in any economics class is that every action in the market will have consequences, and not ones that you may necessarily have ever wanted.
During his first year in office, in August 2001, President Bush issued an executive order that placed severe limitations on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. His explanation for his action went on to say, “At its core, this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science. It’s wrong to destroy life in order to save life.” And this coming from a party that deplores restricting regulations of any kind.
Critics viewed this order as blatant pandering to religious and right-to-life groups. This episode was not the first time a new Republican president had thrown an early bone to evangelicals to silence the multitudes. Christianity Today, had early on in his administration aligned "himself more closely than ever before with conservative Christian moral causes.", according to
The Daily Beast, however, was more definitive in its critique of Bush’s obvious blunder. To agree with the president’s position “required one to agree that a group of cells the size of the period at the end of this sentence is as important as a desperately ill human being.” Scientific research in this arena had been ongoing for over thirty years and held out hope for those in need of vital organ repair or treatment for a host of conditions, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord and other nerve injuries.
What were the consequences of these actions? In this era of globalization, capital moves freely across national borders. As others noted, “Bush may have severely limited what research America could engage in, but he couldn’t build a cognitive wall around the United States.” Science will be served. Nations wishing to expand their economic influence were salivating over this glaring error in judgment and took action.
Singapore reacted swiftly, committing ample resources, incentives and tax credits to establish a massive “bio-polis” to focus on stem-cell research. The best scientists the world over flocked to this Asian community and brought with them the jobs, capital and open support from Big Pharma. Singapore was not the only country to step forward. Israel, South Korea, Japan and China, in cooperation with the EU, joined the fray.
Were these foreign initiatives successful? The intellectual brain drain was palpable in laboratories across our land. States like California moved to fund their own research to prevent the closure of key facilities. The best researchers packed their bags, moved to Asia and continued to unravel the mysteries that stem cells presented. Significant progress has been made, and many of the concerns over the origins of these cells have been dismissed, as new discoveries were made public.
All new technological advances do not emanate entirely from Asia. The ability to construct vital tissue and organ transplants, using only cells from the patient in need, thereby blocking rejection tendencies of the human body, have taken a giant leap forward for mankind. Coupling stem-cell advances with the latest innovations in “3D printing” technology is enabling the crafting of actual cell structures on ceramic or polymer-based scaffolds. In this brave new world, if you need living tissue or a body part replaced, just hit "print"!
As a result of the many breakthroughs in this scientific field, and to his credit, President Obama issued an executive order in March 2009 that removed the barriers on funding that Bush had put in place. The Right, however, never gives up so easily. Court cases followed, but attempts to block progress, even when the nature of the issues had been dramatically changed, were not successful. A federal appeals court denied the requests for injunctive relief. Science marched on!
For anyone with a smartphone, tablet or simpleton PC, the origins of our electronic revolution go back to our space program in the sixties. The cost of reaching escape velocity for any payload was tied to its weight, and this simple fact spearheaded NASA efforts to miniaturize every aspect of the project. The transistor and integrated circuits followed. Even though NASA budgets were severely cut after the Apollo missions (another shot in the commercial foot, by the way), we still benefit handsomely today from those distant R&D investments in technology.
NASA budget cuts, however, wasted a generation of college graduates in aerospace engineering. Many of our best minds were forced to pump gas for a livelihood, a job that no longer exists in today’s self-help society. Bush’s blunder, however, looks more like “déjà vu all over again” – more wasted talent, more outsourcing of vital jobs and more losses of whatever competitive edges we thought we had over other countries.
Since World War II, our scientific infrastructure has been the envy of the world. Our advances in research, especially in the medical arena, have paved the way for continued growth and prosperity. But, like every other bit of infrastructure in our country, from highways to you name it, additional investments must be made if our edge is to be maintained and improved upon over time. Our competitors understand this reality full well and are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to advance ahead of us.
Fiscal-cliff negotiations have concluded, but the fight over budget cuts to federal programs remains on the agenda. The GOP seems determined to slash and burn any R&D expenditure that does not instantly benefit their constituency, choosing to shoot us all in the foot once again, rather than risk a backlash from conservatives and corporate leaders. Will we continue to lose high-tech jobs as they shift to Asian interests? Even if the holidays are over, it is once again time to put our congressmen’s “chestnuts” back over an open fire. It is once again time to fight for science! Lean Forward!
References: Embedded links provided, but points made are primarily the opinion of the author.