By Tom Still

MADISON – It’s easy to overreact when an unwelcome amendment is attached to an otherwise welcome bill in the Wisconsin Legislature. More often than not, the bill is cleansed of bad ideas as it bounces between the Assembly and the Senate. Occasionally, however, a real clunker slips through.

That’s what happened last week when the Assembly approved a bill to grant research and development tax credits to enterprising Wisconsin companies, but to deny those credits to firms focusing on human cloning or research into new lines of human embryonic stem cells.

The cloning and stem cell exceptions weren’t included in the bill when Assembly Speaker John Gard, R-Peshtigo, included it in his “100-day plan.” Nor was it attached to the bill during the committee review process. Rather, the amendment was added during final floor debate.

Some lawmakers may have voted for it without fully understanding the implications. Others may have simply voted “aye” to speed along what was otherwise a strong bill a step closer to passage. Still others may have felt pressure from special-interest groups that oppose embryonic stem cell research.

For whatever reasons the amendment passed, it should become law. And the chances are excellent it won’t.

Gov. Jim Doyle promptly announced he would veto any bill “that would restrict stem-cell research or set businesses who invest in stem-cell research apart from other high-tech companies.” In the Senate, there is no companion amendment pending, and Republican leadership in the upper house appears wary of the Assembly language.

The problem from a public perception standpoint is that the amendment surfaced at all. From coast to coast, investors will read news reports that suggest Wisconsin policymakers are turning their backs on human embryonic stem cell research – despite the exemplary efforts of state researchers to abide by all laws and to fairly respond to all reasonable ethical challenges.

The actual damage will never happen; Doyle or the Senate will see to that. But the perception of damage has already been done. Policymakers in states where stem cell research is valued for medical as well as economic reasons will read about Wisconsin and exclaim, “See? We don’t undermine our researchers and entrepreneurs like that. That’s why investors and researchers should come to our state – and not Wisconsin.”

In California, where voters have approved $3 billion in bonding to finance stem-cell research over 10 years, a huge financial incentive has been created. No one is suggesting that Wisconsin throw those kinds of dollars at stem-cell research and company creation, but some modest tax credits would be useful. And yet, stem-cell opponents in the Assembly managed to derail even that incentive.

The timing of the amendment was unfortunate. Only a few weeks ago, it was reported that Cellular Dynamics International has begun construction of laboratory facilities for a new biotechnology based drug screening company at University Research Park in Madison. CDI was founded by James Thomson, Craig January, and Timothy Kamp, noted researchers at the UW-Madison, and Tactics II Ventures LP, a Wisconsin-based venture capital firm.

The company initially will focus on developing and providing stem cell and human embryonic kidney (HEK-cell) based screening services to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. These services will assist in the development of safer and more effective drugs.

It sends a chilling message to researchers and entrepreneurs when lawmakers who otherwise care about economic development blacklist certain types of technology transfer. History suggests that very few attempts to quash science ultimately succeed, but they can slow cutting-edge research and attempts to convert that research into products and services that help people.

Wisconsin is where human embryonic stem cell research began. Let’s not squander that head start.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.