Stem cells: this election's neglected child

An important issue pushed into the background.

In a US election year dominated by economic issues, research using human embryonic stem cells (hESC) has received far less attention in 2012 than in previous election years – just another social debate pushed into the background, despite its ethical controversy and the fact that it could have major implications for the treatment of conditions as serious and widespread as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia.

Although stem cell research isn't exactly on top of this year's election agenda, the result when America goes to the polls on 6 November could have a major impact on hESC research in the US. The main issue at hand is not whether embryonic stem cell research should be banned – both Obama and Romney agree that this research is legal – but whether it should be federally funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

President Obama has effectively made his position clear during his time in office. In 2009, he reversed a directive from his predecessor George W Bush that denied federal funding to research on any stem cells created after 2001, limiting researchers to the 21 stem cell lines (a family of constantly dividing cells) that had been derived from embryos up to that point. Obama's legislation re-opened the 1,000 or more stem cell lines that have been created since then to federally-funded research, a move welcomed by the scientific community and condemned by pro-life campaigners and conservative Republicans.

In reality, despite Obama's 2009 legislation, under the Dickey-Wicker amendment introduced in 1996 it is still illegal in the US to pursue any research that involves the creation, destruction or discarding of human embryos, meaning that although American scientists can conduct research on stem cell lines derived from embryos, they are barred from using embryos to create their own lines. The Dickey-Wicker amendment remains an obstacle to embryonic stem cell research in the US and it's unclear if the president would have the clout to do away with it if re-elected.

Romney's personal view on hESC seems to broadly follow the pro-life stance of his party; he supports stem cell research in general, but opposes the destruction of embryos for the purpose. In a Republican presidential candidates' debate for the last election in 2007, Romney stated that he wouldn't use federal funds to finance hESC research. This would essentially take the US back to the same situation as under George W Bush, and there's no reason to think that Romney has changed his position between 2007 and now.

The Republican candidate has consistently extolled the benefits of adult and umbilical cord stem cells, which, he asserts, provide the benefits of creating pluripotent cells without the "moral shortcut" of destroying an embryo in the process. Alternatives to embryonic stem cell research are Romney's perfect political solution, allowing him to appear to support stem cell research without losing the religious right by excusing the destruction of embryos.

From a scientific standpoint, his position is less tenable. Researchers have said that the development of non-embryonic stem cell types is actually dependent on embryonic stem cell research as a complementary process. So by plugging adult stem cell research alternatives as the exclusive answer to the field's ethical issues, Romney may be unwittingly damaging their development by depriving researchers of important side-by-side embryonic research.

Whatever the outcome of the elections on 6 November, the US is unlikely to live up to its stem cell research potential when compared to world leaders in the field. If Obama wins, there will at least be federal funding to study existing embryonic stem cells, but the Dickey-Wicker amendment will maintain the ban on creating new stem cell lines. If Romney turns the tide and emerges on top, American stem cell researchers will likely have to suffer through four more years in the unfunded wilderness.

This piece can be read in full here.

Stem cell issues: still important issues. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.