This week US Senate Majority leader Bill Frist took a position in favor of further federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Some observers felt morally betrayed, while others hailed it as a step toward scientific progress. However, the issue that has been lost in the discussion is whether the federal government should be subsidizing such research in the first place.
Contrary to popular belief, stem cell research is not banned;in fact, private investment in this field is virtually unregulated and supported largely by endowments. Additional governmental financing of such scientific research has several effects. First of all, it shelters interest groups’ favorite projects or technologies from the marketplace, while ignoring innovations which may be equally promising. Secondly, federal grants may have strings attached. Probably those hoping to gain further subsidies would not want additional restriction, but government funds rarely come without regulation.
While it is possible that without subsidy the total number of scientific research dollars might be smaller, the additional efficiency and motivation of private studies would likely mitigate the impact, and there are alternatives to direct subsidy.
The federal government has already spent millions of dollars on embryonic stem cell research. If this research were as beneficial as its supporters claim, it would be able to compete in an unsubsidized marketplace. Their desperation for additional subsidies suggests it might fail this test.
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