January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Zachary N. N. Russ Bioengineering graduate student UC Berkeley

The closure of a lab is one of the more somber events in science: It marks the end of a collaboration, where expertise, equipment, and effort came together to investigate the mysteries of nature. Many things can bring about a closure—usually, it coincides with the principal investigator’s retirement or change of occupation.

If you arrive within a few hours, you might beat scavenging graduate students and postdocs before they sequester the good pipets and tabletop centrifuges. It’s not such a sad thing, when it’s planned—the professor might stop taking students and try to graduate the remainder, leaving everyone satisfied with the outcome.

But when the cause-of-demise is financial, the ending doesn’t offer much closure. Everyone feels cheated, as if they were on the cusp of a great discovery but just ran out of time.

Risky Business

For a laboratory, money is time—research is not cheap. In taking a month-long vacation, stocks and reagents go bad, and even minor disruptions in the workflow can lead to waste of both time and money.

It should come as no surprise that approximately 15% of publicly funded researchers admitted to “changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source,” according to a 2005 Nature commentary. Furthermore, 12% said they had overlooked errors in peers’ papers, and 6% neglected to present data contradicting their conclusions. But why is this subtle deception necessary?

Simply put, funding. Every business must seek funding by impressing its clientele, and academic labs distinguish themselves through talks, papers, and presentations. A PI might decide to toss out contradicting data to protect his lab at the cost of scientific advancement or perhaps oversell his latest results. With so much on the line, some researchers simply try to change the rules. The latest funding dispute has made the news in the form of litigation regarding embryonic stem cell research.

Stemming the Tide

In today’s decision in Sherley v. Sebelius, Judge Lamberth decided in favor of the defendants (HHS and NIH) following an initial injunction and later overruling of the injunction. The threat of funding that can be drawn away as soon as a lawsuit appears does not make for good research.

In response to the sudden injunction put out last year, going completely against the spirit of President Barack Obama’s executive order, two Representatives lobbied for a bill specifically outlining which embryonic stem cell (ESC) activities are permitted. Though the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act might prevent a similar upset from occurring in the future, it is only a drop in the bucket.

By trying to isolate science from politics, it seeks to do the impossible. Labs have been and will continue to be subject to politics, whether they are federally funded or corporate. Bell Labs, a private lab that produced seven Nobel Prizes and fourteen Laureates, suffered continuous cuts in the hands of its new owners until there was little left to save.

As tax revenues shrink, federal and state deficits are hitting controversial and uncontested research alike. The greatest threat to stem cell research may not be that they were excluded from a slice of the federal funding pie but that the pie (and the bakery) is shrinking altogether. In a time where professors and staff receive pay cuts and unpaid “furlough” days, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is now facing the possibility of asking voters for another $3-5 billion to support its loans and grants.

So, what’s a lab to do? Even in tough times, stem cell research holds one major advantage–it offers the opportunity to revolutionize regenerative medicine; to find new understanding and cures for a multitude of injuries and maladies. With the Human Genome Project and the Space Shuttle era behind us, the public imagination is ripe for a new project. In fact, a 1998 study found that over 20% of Americans polled estimated NASA had over a quarter of the federal budget—and NASA still enjoyed consistently high approval ratings!

Or, as NASA states on their library website: “With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” – A. Lincoln

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