When Barack Obama removed George W. Bush’s ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research in March, the president cast his decision as part of a larger effort to remove politics from science. No longer would research, Obama said, be shackled by a “false choice between sound science and moral values.”
It turns out the president cannot separate politics and science so easily. No sooner had Obama issued his order than conservative lawmakers in state legislatures began proposing new restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, ranging from criminal penalties to bans on state-level funding. In fact, Obama’s decision has emboldened conservatives to increasingly link stem cell research to abortion. Far from conceding the issue, they are in it for the long haul.
But the stem cell battle is not just a high-profile clash of values. The dispute provides a sharp focus on how science may help reshape America. Several states have set aside billions of dollars to support stem cell research, and the new federal money Obama is promising will generally flow to those areas. That means states supporting stem cell research will experience an economic windfall while attracting highly educated technology workers who tend to vote Democratic. The more conservative states restricting stem cell research will attract fewer funds and fewer socially liberal voters. In short, a state’s stem cell policy will influence electoral results and help determine whether a state turns red or blue.
At the moment, stem cell science mirrors November’s electoral map. Twelve states allow the use of public money to fund stem cell research — and Obama won them all in 2008. Four states have moved to either restrict stem cell research or limit public expenditures for it since Obama’s announcement — and they all voted for John McCain. But now that map could change.
In stem cell politics, key battlegrounds include Georgia, Texas and Arizona — red states where Obama and the Democrats made inroads. These are places that have significant academic and scientific infrastructures but that Republicans control politically. Restrictions on science there could slow the kind of economic growth associated with Democratic support. At the same time, the GOP is putting its popularity at risk by curbing research that most voters support. The new regional political dynamic of the stem cell war is set.