August 02, 2006

Tony Blair Visits the Other Nation, California, to Talk Stem Cells:
Do We Really Need the Feds at All?

Jim Fossett noted this piece and rants:
one of British prime minister Tony Blair’s less publicized stops on his way home from meetings with President Bush in Washington is in California. As described by Blair’s spokesman, this visit is intended to encourage closer collaboration between Britain and California on biotechnological matters in general and embryonic stem cell research in particular. Blair is scheduled to meet with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both of whom are stem cell research supporters, and to make a speech to biotechnology industry executives on July 31. Blair’s spokesman noted that Blair has been interested in closer ties with California for some time and that a joint California-British conference is in the works for November. By contrast with the Bush Administration, British government policy is strongly pro-embryonic stem cell—the British government closely regulates research, has established the world’s first stem cell bank, and is spending some $185 million to support research on a wide range of stem cell related topics.

Scientific collaboration across national borders is nothing new; but quasi-official government to government contact with visits from heads of state, joint conferences, and publicly sponsored and financed collaboration is something different. The particulars remain to be seen, but one can easily envision, for example, collaboration between British and California scientists supported by some form of British or Californian public money, use by California scientists of British manufactured stem cell lines, or other joint activities that would require formal agreements consistent with both British and California laws and procedures.

If the state of California can negotiate what amount to its own trade agreements with the British without any official approval or participation by the federal government, then federal action or inaction is more or less irrelevant to the pace or direction of embryonic stem cell research either here or overseas. Unlike the British framework, which regulates all research regardless of its funding, current American policy only governs those activities supported with federal money, which has become less significant than state and private funds as a source of support for embryonic stem cell research. In the absence of any overarching framework to govern this research; funders, researchers, suppliers, patent holders, commercial firms and other involved parties are likely to pursue negotiated arrangements with each other that serve their economic or commercial interests and try to use existing laws to enforce these arrangements. The time to set a national policy about embryonic stem cell research and related issues, if we decide we want one, may well be past.

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