PERSON OF INTEREST: ROGER PEDERSEN
A refreshing change of climate
Having left U.S., stem cell researcher finds British view is music to his ears
By Jeremy Manier a Tribune staff reporter
July 22, 2007 CAMBRIDGE, England
To see Roger Pedersen relaxing at a favorite spot beside the River Cam, it’s hard to fathom that this unassuming scientist helped spark America’s fiery debate over embryonic stem cells.
Pedersen stirred fears of a mass emigration of stem cell researchers in 2001, when he left his prominent research post in California for the University of Cambridge, citing Britain’s looser stem cell laws. To this day, backers of stem cell research invoke the specter of a brain drain to Britain and other countries as one reason for rolling back the restrictions President Bush placed on stem cell funding.
Yet Bush’s policy never drove away much American research talent, thanks in part to state initiatives that have compensated for the federal funding limits. These days, what’s most striking to an American observer in Britain is the utter absence of the intensity and rancor that have charged the stem cell debate in the U.S.
The calm scene in Britain may offer a glimpse at the stem cell conversation in a post-Bush America. Many of the current Democratic and GOP presidential candidates have pledged to loosen or remove Bush’s restrictions.
Pedersen’s move to Britain has led him to research success, a new marriage and a new hobby: violin-making. He said his home country would do well to copy his adopted nation’s stem cell consensus.
“I’m very happy to be in a place where the first thing that comes to your mind when you say ‘stem cells’ isn’t politics,” said Pedersen, 62, co-director of the Cambridge Stem Cell Initiative.
No one knows how the U.S. research scene might have developed had Bush not limited funding for embryonic stem cells — microscopic blank slates that can grow into virtually any type of tissue. But Pedersen’s experience illustrates just how pivotal the 2001 policy shift was for many scientists.
For Pedersen, the first American researcher to apply for federal funding of work on embryonic stem cells, Bush’s moral qualms about the field spurred a personal and professional crisis.
The administration often states that Bush was the first president actually to fund embryonic stem cell research, but that’s a bit misleading. In reality, President Bill Clinton authorized such funding for the first time in 2000, under a relatively loose regulatory scheme.
After Clinton’s announcement, Pedersen immediately applied for a federal grant to support his stem cell work at the University of California at San Francisco. For Pedersen, who in 1997 had lost the race to be the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells (to James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin), the federal money offered a measure of protection from the vagaries of private biotech funding.
But a few months after Bush took office, Pedersen received a phone call on April 12, 2001, from the National Institutes of Health saying it had suspended consideration of his grant.
“It was very disappointing because in the previous four years I had ramped up my lab to do research on embryonic stem cells,” Pedersen said. “On the day I was told there would be no federal funding, I knew I would either have to change the direction of my lab or leave. And I happened to have an offer from Cambridge literally simultaneously.”
The departure of a major figure such as Pedersen from UCSF, a citadel of the American medical research community, helped launch stem cells to the top of the national agenda. Many experts warned that other scientists were poised to follow Pedersen’s lead and leave for friendlier shores.
Instead of ordering a total ban, Bush restricted stem cell funding to exclude cell colonies made after 2001. That may have prevented a stampede of scientists, but Pedersen said the limits fostered an “invisible brain drain.” Many young researchers have told him that the field appeared so uncertain after Bush’s decision that they simply chose a less controversial area of medical research.
Most American scientists would have found it difficult to follow Pedersen’s example in any event. He said he took a pay cut of about 50 percent when he left the U.S. — a reduction that he could partially offset with retirement savings. But he still makes “substantially less” than the $200,000 salary an institute director of his stature could command in the United States.
Pedersen said he tries to snatch all the good American talent he can for his center, but it’s more of a brain trickle than a brain drain. He often competes in recruiting with Harvard, which has a large, privately funded stem cell program, and universities in California, home to the nation’s largest state-supported stem cell initiative.
What Britain can promise young scientists is a political climate that Americans would find unrecognizable.
All three of the nation’s major parties substantially agree about the value of funding work on embryonic stem cells. The government has successfully portrayed its investment in stem cell research as having a practical basis in the potential long-term benefit to patients in the state-funded health care system.
“It’s a culture shock now for me to go back to the States and be reminded what a political football stem cells are,” Pedersen said. “Here it’s much more about patient care for its own sake.”
The untroubled approach to stem cells is possible because most Britons see the underlying abortion debate as essentially settled. Parliament decriminalized abortion in the late 1960s, and subsequent attempts to change that law have been “flatly unsuccessful,” said David Albert Jones, a Catholic bioethicist at St. Mary’s University College Twickenham in London.
“Ultimately you do have quite a lot of consensus here, because the lines of debate are drawn differently,” Jones said. “Anti-abortion views that are common in the U.S. command about 10 to 15 percent support here.”
Pedersen said he does not regret moving to Cambridge, which has a rich store of researchers doing work on stem cells. He found Britain too expensive to pursue his old hobby of flying single-engine airplanes, but he discovered a different pastime more appropriate to the town’s medieval feel when he decided to take up violin-making.
“The variation that your eye can detect in an instrument is on the order of the size of a human embryo,” Pedersen said. Working on stem cells, he said, is “very much linked to this experience of making a violin, in the sense that you have to be precise, patient and persistent to make it all come out.”
– – – SIDEBAR – – –
In testimony before Congress earlier this month, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona bemoaned the “partisanship and political manipulation” that greeted him in Washington after being appointed by President Bush. Carmona said White House officials sought to silence him on such issues as mental health, secondhand smoke, contraception and embryonic stem cell research. Following are excerpts from his testimony:
On being ignored
“The reality is that the nation’s doctor has been marginalized and relegated to a position with no independent budget and with supervisors who are political appointees with partisan agendas. Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried.”
On telling the truth
“I was often instructed what to say or what not to say. I did the best I could to speak out on issues. Honestly, I never lied, I never covered the truth, but it was a fine line that I walked all the time because often the particular issue already had a preconceived political solution. … I would see policy moving forward and I would scratch my head and think, shouldn’t the surgeon general have been involved in this discussion?”
On global warming
“The issue of global warming came up once … with senior officials, where they were heralding global warming to be nothing more than — you know, a liberal cause that had no merit, and they were kind of dismissing it. And then I — and I remember thinking — I said, ‘Well, I understand why they want me here now. They want me to discuss the science because obviously they don’t understand the science.’ And I had this scientific discussion for about a half an hour, and I was never invited back to the meeting.”
“I was asked to say certain things at meetings, things were put into my speeches — in fact, I had two speechwriters who ultimately quit because they were so intimidated and browbeaten by appointed officials. … We’d play this game [of] taking things out, putting things in. And finally, I told the staff, ‘Let them put in whatever they want. I’m not going to say it anyway.’ ”
On public health
“The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds. The job of the surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party.”
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune