Stem Cell Silence

The University of Minnesota resists playing in a cultural tug of war -- yet is squarely stuck in the middle.
February 9, 2007

Missouri lawmakers cut $113 million in university building projects from a $335 million higher education bill Wednesday, as The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported. Their reason? As the Post-Dispatch puts it, “The committee chairman, Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said the projects that had been cut had been identified as possibly housing stem cell research in the future.”

Given the toxic political atmosphere surrounding embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists herald but abortion opponents scorn, one might expect that administrators would be jumping for joy in Minnesota, where a House committee met Wednesday to debate a bill explicitly affirming the ability of the University of Minnesota to spend state-appropriated funds on stem cell research. After all, their university is a stem cell research center, home to the Stem Cell Institute, which was founded in 1999 as the world's first interdisciplinary institute dedicated to the field. Yet, administrators' lukewarm, “no official position” response perhaps reflects a larger trend for many public universities to insulate themselves, as much as possible, from the political debate.

After all, who wants to anger not only the populace, but also the governor, who has threatened to veto the legislation in Minnesota ( according to news accounts from his Monday meeting with the Minnesota Family Council)? “There are lots of universities, of course, who see themselves as potential grantees if the National Institutes of Health is going to expand the research. But. . .sometimes it’s hard for state universities to be too public about it, because it’s too political,” says Michael Werner, president of the Werner Group, a Washington-based public policy and ethics consulting firm. While some private institutions, such as Harvard, and even some public ones, like the University of California system and the University of Michigan, have been active in the national discussion about the controversial brand of research, Werner points out that “lots of major research institutions in the United States are not very publicly out front of the debate.”

“It might be more about the kind of profile they want to have, more so than how they feel about the issue,” he added.

In fairness, the University of Minnesota might have every reason in the world not to take an official position on the largely symbolic legislation that state lawmakers have proposed. Why risk a political hit to take a stand on a bill that, ironically, is actually intended to insulate them from the political debate so they can continue their research in relative peace? Why fight for a bill that simply reaffirms the use of state funds for stem cell research when the university already can use state monies for that purpose -- and administrators have simply chosen not to, in part, to isolate themselves from the type of political debate that is now off and running? Why jump into the fray when they can quietly watch? And wait.

“My thought is that they need kind of an affirmative statement from the state that this is an appropriate thing to do,” says State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the sponsor of House Bill 34, which, along with its companion, Senate Bill 100, outlines the types of research permitted -- including research involving human embryonic stem cells, human embryonic germ cells and human adult cells – and specifically endorses the use of state-appropriated funds for stem cell research at the University of Minnesota. “Two or three years ago, there was a bill introduced, which fortunately didn’t go anywhere, that would take any state funding away from any entity that was doing any of this research. It was signed by an awful lot of legislators, some of whom have been defeated," Kahn said.

A section in the House version of the bill calling for an appropriation of actual state money was struck during a committee hearing Wednesday, but that reflects the Minnesota Legislature’s shift toward providing general allocations to the university while limiting the practice of identifying individual budget line items, said Kahn. Money for stem cell research would be provided in the general budget, she explained, or even in the biotechnology budget, but at least one faculty member was skeptical of the net financial gain the university might see for stem cell research, given the vast needs of the university.

Meanwhile, the state's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, wrote a letter this week to all legislators in Minnesota’s Democratically controlled House and Senate about Kahn's bill, indicating that he would like to see stem cell legislation that would restrict research damaging to embryos, which Kahn’s bill does not do.

In his letter, Pawlenty emphasizes his support for working with the Legislature to craft a stem cell policy "that both advances medical research and respects the moral and ethical concerns of many Minnesotans.” Among the research methods he endorses are the use of stem cells from discarded umbilical cords, the use of placental or adult-derived stem cells, the extraction of stem cells from embryos “without damaging them,” the use of stem cell lines generated from amniotic fluid, and the use of “stem cell lines beyond those authorized by current federal guidelines if the lines were derived from embryos that no longer exist or are not capable of producing life.”

Yet, for all the political Ping-Pong, as Sarah Youngerman, a spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota’s Academic Health Center, points out, the now unfunded bill “doesn’t do anything that we believe we couldn’t already do.” Neither the university's president nor senior vice president for health sciences was available Thursday to comment further on the university’s official position of “no official position.”

But the stance is consistent at a university that in 2004 made the conscious decision to go into self-policing mode rather than subject itself to undue political pressure. Three years ago, administrators at the University of Minnesota made the “strategic political decision” not to use state funding for embryonic stem cell research projects that would be ineligible for federal funding, under President Bush's 2001 restrictions. “In the big picture, we want this state to be viewed as a strong biosciences state, and one welcome to bioscience research,” says Youngerman. But, she says, “Our job is not to set policy.” Currently, the Stem Cell Institute conducts government-funded research on stem cell lines eligible for federal support, and exclusively raises private dollars for research on stem cell lines that are not.

Faculty generally agree with the university’s position (that is, the lack of one) on the proposed legislation, and say there’s no need for the university to alter its own stated intention not to use state dollars for those projects ineligible for federal dollars – unless those state dollars start flowing.

Changing the university’s internal policy without a corresponding change in state investment – such as California’s outlay of $3 billion over 10 years -- or a removal of federal restrictions wouldn’t “substantially change anything in terms of our practical ability to do the research that needs to be done,” explains John Wagner, a professor of pediatrics and director of clinical research for the Stem Cell Institute. The university’s conservative policy regarding state funds simply reflects its existence within a mixed political climate regarding stem cell research, Wagner says -- more mixed than in other states like Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and, of course, California, that have more actively pursued the research. "Here we had the forethought of creating a stem cell institute but in an environment that didn’t support it," he says.

“I can see why the bill doesn’t really change anything from the university’s perspective. It’s very, very nice to be recognized as doing valid research that’s philosophically supported by the state, but I think the university would be happy to support something that actually has a budget [line item],” says Meri Firpo, an assistant professor of medicine. “In the meantime, we’re trying to get our work done, trying to get the private funding dollars to keep ourselves going.”

“Somewhere inside all of this,” she adds, “we’re trying to cure diabetes.”


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