Monday, 1 September 2008

Candidates weigh in on biomedicine

Barack ObamaBarack Obama
By Janet Raloff
Web edition : Friday, August 29th, 2008

As people wait expectantly for answers from John McCain and Barack Obama to the Science Debate ’08 questions, some clues of what might be coming can be gleaned from the senators’ answers to a written questionnaire sent the candidates by Research! America. This group bills itself as the nation's largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance. It should be noted, however, that the Alexandria, Va.-based group has a definite bias. It’s stated mission: “making research to improve health a higher national priority.”

Earlier this week, I spoke with Stacie M. Propst, the organization’s vice president for science policy and outreach about McCain and Obama. “There are some commonalities between the candidates that come through loud and clear,” she said. “Both would shift to a health-care system that addresses and preempts disease.” Both also value research as the foundation of innovation, back stem-cell research (though McCain with caveats), want to reform the H-1B visa program to allow in more non-immigrant foreign workers with specialty skills (that include but are not limited to engineering, mathematics, physical sciences and medicine), and favor digitizing medical records to streamline costs and limit medical errors.

“We do a lot of opinion research,” Propst says, “and we started to see a trend emerge from the public — that although Americans say they would back a candidate who supports greater funding for research, they don’t actually know that much about the positions on this by their elected officials and candidates.”

Obama sent in his responses to Research! America’s 17 questions late last year. McCain’s answers arrived much later — this summer. The group also has responses from Chuck O. Baldwin (the Constitution party candidate from Palmyra, N.Y.), Rep. Bob Barr (the Libertarian party candidate from Atlanta), Rep. Cynthia McKinney (the Green party candidate from Atlanta), and Ralph Nader (the Independent candidate from Washington, D.C.).

You can view the whole list of responses on the group’s website. Below, I’ve digested what seemed the salient elements of responses from Obama and McCain for people who are more generally interested in the research.
The stem cell question...
Do you support or oppose expanded federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells?
Obama: Stem cells hold the promise of treatments and cures for more than 70 major diseases — conditions affecting more than 100 million Americans. “As president, I would: promote embryonic stem cell research" (as he did when he introduced legislation as a member of the Illinois Senate "that specifically permitted embryonic stem cell research in Illinois”). He would also expand the number of stem cell lines available for research. He cosponsored the current Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. "My plan would reverse the president’s policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos, left over from in vitro fertilization, to simply be discarded.”
McCain: ““While I do support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I also believe that clear lines should be drawn to reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress. Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic. I also support funding for other research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research which hold much scientific promise and do not involve the use of embryos. I strongly oppose the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes. I voted to ban the practice of 'fetal farming,' making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes."
Comment: clearly Mr. Obama will turn a new leaf in the way that the U.S. federal government handles the issue of stem cell research. Hopefully, the medieval frame of mind of the Bush administration on this matter will be left behind. That would be great news for the global scientific community; undoubtedly the pharmaceutical multinational companies have to change their views and policies about many issues concerning biotechnology under the new probable Obama administration.

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