One of the stories that’s been circulating in the past couple of days is the gift of $10 million to UC-Irvine for stem cell research from a couple. About $2 million will go toward embryonic stem cell research and about $8 million toward a new research facility, according to a brief AP story in the Washington Post.
This, like the other private donations being made, has major scientific significance. Since federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is not likely to increase given the President’s position on the issue, money has to come either from states or from private donations. This means that basically there are two parallel tracks in embryonic stem cell research—they don’t meet even at the horizon. One group of researchers will be able to do research on new embryonic stem cell lines and see how factors such as culture medium affect development, rate of mutation, and so on. The other group is essentially left trying to differentiate contaminated and/or mutated cells into particular cell types. Their research will not be useless—they can still study such things as effective growth factors, signaling proteins, and gene expression—but it will be inherently more limited than the work of researchers who are essentially given a clean slate. Further, contaminated stem cells cannot ever be used therapeutically.
We have already seen private separated from public in a number of areas in this country—education leaps immediately to mind. Health care is another field—there is Medicare, and there is your friendly neighborhood HMO. There’s a novel by Octavia Butler, terrifying in its like hood, called Parable of The Sower, in which police and fire services are paid for directly by the people who need them, rather than by the city.
Obviously the federal government can’t support everything perfectly. Obviously people who have more money generally do better than those who don’t. But policies which lead to private work being more reliable than public work are dangerous. Why not dispense with government altogether if citizens can do better with their own money? That will make the poor eventually die off too, and then they won’t be a problem anymore. If the US government is to do what it claims to do, and “support the general welfare and ensure domestic tranquility,” it needs to fully fund and support policies which will benefit all Americans, rather than forcing them through public neglect to go to the domain of the privileged if they are to survive.