As expected, US President Barak Obama has lifted the restrictions imposed by his predecessor, George W Bush, on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Equally expected, the move drew sharply polarised responses from, on the one hand, long-frustrated researchers and patient groups and, on the other, outraged pro-lifers who warned of taxpayers’ dollars being invested in the destruction of unborn children.

Obama signed an executive order revoking a previous order inked by Bush in 2007 as well as a presidential statement from 2001. Together these limited government funding for embryonic stem cell research to the small pool of cell lines available for study before the cut-off date of 9 August 2001. The White House said this date was “arbitrary” and that the restriction had “no basis in science and was not required by any law”.

Bush’s executive order came in June 2007, when the then president delivered on his pledge to veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007. Approved with bipartisan majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives this bill would have released federal money for stem cell research using discarded human embryos. It was recently reintroduced in Congress to provide legal heft to any immediate presidential reversal of the Bush-era prohibitions.

At the time, Bush – who had already vetoed The Stem Cell Research and Enhancement Act of 2005 on ethical grounds in July 2006 – also announced an executive order ensuring federal funding would be available for research using pluripotent stem cells generated without recourse to human embryos. Supporters of the stem cell research bill dismissed the order as a distraction that provided no new federal funding for stem cell research and added nothing to activities already permitted under existing restrictions.

Obama’s executive order directs the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop guidelines for the “support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law”, the White House noted.

Under the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment, it will remain illegal for scientists in the US to create their own stem-cell lines from human embryos using federal funds. There is talk, however, of Obama’s concession opening the door to Congressional efforts to overturn this broader restriction.

The NIH is charged with posting draft guidelines on human stem cell research for public comment, then publishing final guidelines within 120 days of the executive order being signed.

False choice

Rather than furthering discovery, recent government policy on stem cell research had “forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values”, Obama commented, adding: “I believe the two are not inconsistent”.

He acknowledged, nonetheless, the weight of ethical objections to research using discarded embryos, stating: “It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view”.

What Obama will not stand for, though, is the politicisation of scientific policy – an accusation often laid at the door of the Bush administration, and notably in the stem cell debate, where Bush was seen as pandering to a core constituency of religious conservatives.

Accordingly, Obama has also signed a Presidential Memorandum on scientific integrity, which assigns to the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) the responsibility of “ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological issues”.

The OSTP director will have to come up with a strategy within 120 days to make sure that, for example, science and technology positions in the executive branch are filled based on the candidates’ scientific and technological knowledge, credentials and experience; and that agencies make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions that inform policy decisions.

Promoting science “isn’t just about providing resources”, Obama said. “”It is about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists … do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”