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March 7, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Money Talks

BERLIN — The eight-month election campaign has begun in the United States. What are the chances of forming a clear view of the long-run consequences of George W. Bush’s religiously-motivated doubts about the desirability of growing “spare parts” from manufactured human embryos?

The news last week was that the White House Personnel Office had dismissed two members of the President’s Council on Bioethics and replaced them with researchers with more sympathetic views. Departing were Elizabeth Blackburn and ethicist William May, each of whom had voted to permit federally-funded scientists to clone human embryos for basic research. (May, 76, said he planned to leave anyway.)

Meanwhile, sixty prominent scientists, including twenty Nobel laureates, issued a statement on “restoring scientific integrity in policy making,” Many of the scientists had links to the Clinton administration, but five had been associated with the administrations of Presidents Nixon and Eisenhower (and none with Presidents Reagan or Bush).

About the same time, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report detailing 21 incidents said to demonstrate “a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees.” And Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) promised to hold Congressional hearings next week on the charges.

The real news last week, however, was that Harvard University is planning a big move into stem-cell research, joining the University of California at San Francisco, Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin as a center where research into the pluripotent cells derived from human embryos is going ahead at a brisk pace with private money, unencumbered by government restrictions.

Having purchased a large tract of land in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, just across the Charles River from its Cambridge campus (and not far down the street from the highly successful laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the world’s richest university intends to raise a fund of at least $100 million for a new building, designed to bring stem-cell research “out of the lab and into the clinic” of its medical school.

Elsewhere, California voters last week approved by a large majority a $15 billion bond offering, the largest in the state’s history, whose purpose is to smooth the state’s working out of its budget crisis. So attention immediately turned to a voter initiative designed to put another $3 billion bond issue on the California ballot in November — to create a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The measure is supported by leading scientists and venture capitalists.

This California plan stands in interesting counterpoint to German and, recently, French proposals to auction portions of their central banks’ gold reserves in order to fund promising (but unspecified) avenues if research and development. French science is, in fact, on the verge of something very like a strike. Lab directors have pledged to cease performing administrative chores as of March 9 if various budget cuts are not rescinded.

Even if fresh funds are forthcoming, though, European laboratories face formidable barriers to keeping abreast of current developments in stem-cell research. European science ministers failed to reach agreement in December after 18 months of haggling over guidelines for funding embryo research.

Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal favor strict limits on experimentation. Indeed, Germany has outlawed the destruction of a human embryo for research purposes. With far looser guidelines, the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries are forging ahead. And a South Korean laboratory last month announced that it had successfully cloned 30 human embryos to create a supply of stem cells.

Thus President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, even if it were to enthusiastically support his 2001 decision to permit no new stem cell colonies to be developed with federal funds, represents a relatively ineffective brake on a movement that has developed powerful momentum, internationally and in the United States.

The Council serves mainly as a forum in which thoughtful and technologically sophisticated religious conservatives can air their views — chair Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, UCLA political scientist James Q. Wilson, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson of Johns Hopkins University. Who will say they are not entitled to be heard?

* * *

“It’s always good news when an economist gets a good job,” joked Romani Prodi at a Berlin press conference last week. Naturally the European Commission president thinks so. He is an economist too.

But in fact Horst Koehler’s decision to step down immediately as chairman of the International Monetary Fund in order to accept a nomination to become Germany’s president in May is, at best, a mixed blessing. He already had a good job at the IMF. He was doing it very well. And the German presidency is largely ceremonial, a position of moral leadership.

True, the Social Democrats are having a hard time making stick their program of much-needed reforms of the nation’s pension and health-care systems. The next national election isn’t scheduled before 2006. And Koehler, 61, a Christian Democrat, has an excellent track record persuading Germans to take their medicine — the European Union, a common currency, reunification.

Koehler’s token opponent in the May election, also slated last week in the closed-door negotiations among party leaders, is Gesine Schwan, president of the European University Viadrina. The long-lapsed university (Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Alexander von Humboldt are its most famous graduates, Napoleon shut it down) is located in the dusty old East German garrison town of Frankfurt am Oder, across the river from Poland. After reunification, it was revived by Stanford University educator Hans Weiler.

Improbably, Viadrina is said to have become one of Germany’s most exciting start-up campuses, reminiscent of, say, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, or Northeastern University in Boston in their early days. With its mixture of German, Polish and French students, it has become a genuine meeting place between east and west — on an appropriation of something like €19 million a year.

It makes sense for the Social Democrats to slate a prominent woman for the presidency, at the very moment that Angela Merkel, an East German Protestant, has taken the helm of the Christian Democrats. Merkel may well become German’s first woman chancellor. Given the complicated nature of the election, Schwan is bound to lose. (The US Electoral College is simple by comparison.) Still, she will cut a gallant figure.

But it makes no sense at all to continue to stint on Viadrina’s federal appropriation. According to Schwan, the university is handing by a thread.

The competition between German higher education and the rest of the world is all too real. The way to rekindle growth is not simply to pour money into a few big schools hoping to revive a few name brands, which is the current plan. Real growth requires much experimentation and diversity. The trick is to plant many seeds in many places and nourish the strongest sprouts.

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