Francis Collins and the Dickey-Wicker amendment

The New Yorker has a very well written article on Francis Collins and the recent upset in stem cell research, but it feels terribly premature. It’s a stage-setting piece to an act that hasn’t been resolved yet.

The part about Collins is familiar ground for those of us who were peeved at his selection to be head of the NIH — he’s a folksy evangelical Christian with a fabulous scientific CV. But it’s the context that’s most important.

Here’s the deal: during the Bush years, many restrictions were imposed on embryonic stem cell research by a reactionary right-wing congress and executive. President Obama has been trying to move ahead and open up new avenues for research, but just recently got a bit of cold water splashed in his face by a judge who determined that the Dickey-Wicker amendment was being illegally neglected.

The Dickey-Wicker amendment is a relic of Gingrich-era scientific obstructionism. It prohibits the funding of research in which human embryos are created or destroyed; the Clinton administration developed a rather dodgy line of reasoning to get around it by arguing that human stem cells were not human embryos, therefore research on cells could be funded. Which is entirely true, but it’s shaky because the intent of the legislators was to kill human embryonic stem cell research entirely, and taking advantage of the inability of Republican congressman to draft a scientifically complete description of the work they were prohibiting isn’t exactly fair.

So, much as I deplore the decision, Judge Royce Lambeth was legally correct, I think, to pull the plug.

“The language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” he wrote. “This prohibition encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed,” as the Justice Department argued.

The problem is the anti-science Dickey-Wicker rider, which needs to be scrapped (rather than rhetorically sidestepped) in order for research to proceed. And that’s where Francis Collins comes in, and, unfortunately, precisely where the New Yorker article stops.

Collins has the right goals: he’s wrangling with congress to open up opportunities for more stem cell research. His opponent is the Christian pro-life contingent, and hey, look, Collins speaks their language — he’s One of Them. Could that help? Will he get through to them and break the logjam? Stay tuned!

I’m a bit cynical. I think we’re looking at a deep-seated ideological conflict, and that the right wing won’t budge no matter how folksy and friendly and religiously copacetic Collins might be. But this is a case where, if Collins succeeds in battling the bureaucratic believers and overcoming the hurdles to stem cell research support, I will grudgingly admit that he was a politically astute choice for his position, despite my earlier contrary sentiments. I still think he’s a dingbat, but maybe we need a few dingbats on the interface between science and politics.

Of course, if he fails…but let’s hope he doesn’t.