Officials of the National Institutes of Health have engaged in a delicate dance in recent years: whether and how openly to acknowledge the widely held view of scientists that the federal government's policy on embryonic stem cell research is restricting important research, knowing that to do so would put them at political odds with their bosses in the Bush administration.
In January, an official who was heading an NIH panel on stem cells acknowledged at a Senate hearing that because of the administration's policy, "we are missing out on breakthroughs."
On Monday, the director of the institutes, Elias Zerhouni, stepped out further. At a hearing of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that drafts the biomedical research agency's budget, Zerhouni did not bring up the subject of stem cells in his opening statement, which focused on the need for more federal support for the NIH generally. (That was the theme of most of the hearing, and a line pushed hard by Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican.)
But in answer to a set of leading questions from the panel's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Zerhouni admitted that President Bush's 2001 policy restricting research on embryonic stem cells to a select number of "lines" that already existed at that time was having a deleterious effect on the quality and promise of research.
"The current lines will not be sufficient," Zerhouni said. "It's not possible for me to see how we can sustain the momentum of research.''
Would lifting the ban help researchers find more cures for diseases, Harkin asked?
"The answer is Yes," the NIH director said.
In a nod to the political controversy surrounding the research, which many abortion opponents also oppose because the stem cells come from embryos, Zerhouni said he knew that there is "more than science that is involved here." But "to sideline NIH on such an issue of importance is short-sighted," he added. "It won't serve the nation well in the long run."
When Zerhouni concluded, Harkin praised him for his "profound and courageous statement." The Iowa senator issued a statement later in which he said:
"Dr. Zerhouni made a powerful statement that science, not politics, should drive the discussion on lifting the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. As the nation's top-ranking official on biomedical research, his opinion is highly respected. I applaud his courage and appreciate his candor on a subject so important to millions of Americans suffering from illnesses such as Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer or spinal cord injuries. My hope is that the White House gets the message and doesn't continue to stand in the way of progress."