MADISON–Guess which news item is out of step with public opinion in the state, the nation and the world?
  1. The state of Wisconsin grants $1 million and loans another $1 million to a company formed by Dr. James Thomson, a UW-Madison researcher so renowned that the words “Nobel Prize” practically circle his head. The company has technology that could revolutionize drug discovery.
  2. The National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s leading medical research agency, selects UW-Madison for the first and only National Stem Cell Bank. The existence of strong ethical safeguards is a major reason why NIH picked Wisconsin over Harvard, Stanford and other big-name competitors.
  3. The state Senate, lobbied heavily by right-to-life groups, votes to ban a scientific procedure – therapeutic cloning – that could someday be used by Wisconsin researchers in their search for therapies and diagnostics.
If you guessed (3), you win the prize – an autographed copy of Merlin the Wizard’s Guide to Alchemy in the 21st Century.
All of these news stories broke within a busy week that defined Wisconsin’s strength as a world-class center of research, and simultaneously exposed its Achilles’ heel.
At a time when most states competing in the knowledge-based economy can only dream of having researchers such as Thomson in their midst, creating companies that could improve human health while creating jobs, the state Senate voted to restrict research that will be available to Thomson’s competitors.
At a time when most states competing in the knowledge-based economy can only dream of landing a national research center in any discipline, the state Senate voted to restrict research that could be conducted ethically in Wisconsin, under the watchful eye of a federal agency.
If none of that makes sense, welcome to the complicated and sometimes contradictory world of stem-cell politics.
Monday’s announcement that UW-Madison will be home to the $16 million National Stem Cell Bank was a boost to Wisconsin’s biotech industry overall and a tremendous vote of confidence in the infrastructure surrounding stem-cell research in the state. The NIH, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, considered a number of sites but settled on Wisconsin because its has the right combination of interdisciplinary research strength, tech transfer capabilities and – perhaps most important – proven ethical safeguards.
The purpose of the bank is to store and grow 22 stem cell lines eligible for federal funding under President Bush’s 2001 policy. The bank will provide standardized testing and development, as well as low-cost distribution to researchers who want to use the cells. Currently, various research groups use different kinds of stem cells, and findings involving those lines can be difficult to compare in ways that are scientifically valid.
In the same week when some state lawmakers were questioning the value of human embryonic stem cell research, the Bush-controlled NIH was concluding that Wisconsin is the best place in the United States to conduct such research.
Why such a stark divide? Some of the skepticism in the Senate was tied to mistrust of the university due to highly publicized problems that had little or nothing to do with the quality of research conducted there. Some was due to a belief that stem cell-related research involves the ending of a tiny, embryonic “life,” even though researchers are not working with fertilized eggs.
The quality of Wisconsin stem cell research has been validated by the NIH, an agency that is always the first to complain if ethical guidelines are stretched. The goals of that research are supported by most citizens, according to all available polls. Let’s find a way to close the credibility gap between researchers and policymakers, and to keep Wisconsin moving ahead.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.