When President Obama lifts restrictions on funding for human embryonic stem cell research today, he will also issue a presidential memorandum aimed at insulating scientific decisions across the federal government from political influence, officials said yesterday.
"The president believes that it's particularly important to sign this memorandum so that we can put science and technology back at the heart of pursuing a broad range of national goals," Melody C. Barnes, director of Obama's Domestic Policy Council, told reporters during a telephone briefing yesterday.
Although officials would not go into details, the memorandum will order the Office of Science and Technology Policy to "assure a number of effective standards and practices that will help our society feel that we have the highest-quality individuals carrying out scientific jobs and that information is shared with the public," said Harold Varmus, who co-chairs Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
The decision by President George W. Bush to restrict funding for stem cell research has been seen by critics as part of a pattern of allowing political ideology to influence scientific decisions across an array of issues, including climate change and whether to approve the morning-after pill Plan B for over-the-counter sales.
"We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs," Varmus said. "This is consistent with the president's determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy."
The memorandum will ensure that "people who are appointed to federal positions in science have strong credentials and that the vetting process for evaluating scientific information doesn't lead to any undermining of the scientific opinion," he said.
The stem cell executive order will overturn a restriction Bush put in place on Aug. 9, 2001, limiting federal funding to what turned out to be 21 cell lines already in existence on that date.
Because of their ability to become any type of cell in the body, many scientists believe human embryonic stem cells could lead to new therapies for many diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and paralysis. But the research is highly controversial because the cells are obtained by destroying embryos, which some consider to be immoral.
On Friday, officials confirmed that Obama would fulfill a longtime promise to lift those restrictions today, thrilling supporters but stirring intense criticism from opponents, who argue that there are alternative approaches free from ethical concerns.
As supporters had hoped, Obama's order will come without any caveats and leave the details to be worked out by the National Institutes of Health, which will have 120 days to develop guidelines that will be used to vet requests for federal funding for research. The guidelines will address a host of thorny ethical issues raised by such research, such as how to obtain proper consent from donors of embryos used to obtain the cells.
"As a result of lifting those limitations, the president is in effect allowing federal funding of embryonic stem research to the extent it's permitted by federal law -- that is work with stem cells themselves, not the derivation of those stem cells," Varmus said.
Obama does not intend to call for the repeal of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to conduct research on embryos directly.
"Congress will have to make a determination about how they want to deal with that," Barnes said.