WASHINGTON, D.C.—In the same chandeliered White House room where, 2 years ago, George W. Bush reaffirmed federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, President Barack Obama announced this morning that "we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research [and] will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research." Scientists are elated by the decision—and the Executive Order that accompanied it—a reversal of a policy first laid down by Bush on 9 August 2001.
Lobbyists, politicians, ethicists, stem cell researchers, and a goodly contingent of Nobelists, including Harold Varmus, head of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, were on hand for the announcement. Even Kyoto University researcher Shinya Yamanaka, famous for developing so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, flew in for the signing, which ended with a standing ovation from the crowd. A day may come "when words like 'terminal' and 'incurable' are potentially retired from our vocabulary," said the president.
Identical bills—the same legislation that was vetoed by Bush in 2007—have been introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate to codify the policy change.
Obama also used the occasion to tackle another aspect of the Bush reign that scientists had criticized: the alleged politicization of subjects ranging from stem cells to global warming. The president announced that he has sent a memorandum to the Office of Science and Technology directing it to develop "a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" within the next 120 days.
"This is a great outcome," said University of Pennsylvania stem cell researcher John Gearhart, speaking from a taxicab en route to the White House ceremony. It "lifts a cloud in many areas," he said, and "also sends a message internationally that [National Institutes of Health-funded researchers] can collaborate with people."
NIH has 120 days to come up with guidelines on research with the hundreds of human embryonic stem cell lines that are now available to researchers. Scientists hope that they'll be able to get a piece of the action from the stimulus budget bill, which allocates $200 million to a new grants program that includes research with stem cells and regenerative medicine.