In his first nationwide address as president, George W. Bush
said that he would allow federal funds to be committed to research
on those stem cells already obtained from human embryos "where the
life and death decision has already been made." Significantly,
Bush's first prime time remarks focused not on the tumbling NASDAQ
or the crumbling peace in the Middle East, but on science and
morality - on what we can and should do about these remarkable and
 The poker-hot issue for the president and the nation is
those stem cells derived from four-or five-day old embryos, which
are capable of developing into all types of mature body cells.
Scientists hope to discover how these cells can be chemically
tweaked to give rise to tissues for transplant - muscle, pancreas,
nerve - potentially treating everything from diabetes to
 In allowing for federal support of work on existing stem
cell lines, Bush took a carefully measured step. For some, it was
too small a step for hopeful patients. For others, it was the first
footfall on a slippery ethical slope to organ farms. But all agree
- it was a carefully measured step.
 As stem cell backers and opponents search for the devils in
the details of the president's decision, several companies continue
with their privately funded experiments on stem cells - some of
which even give supporters of such work the creeps. In response to
media pressure, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), a biotech firm in
Worcester, Mass., has reluctantly acknowledged its efforts to
create human embryos for research via a cloning method similar to
the one used for Dolly the sheep.
 Before this, as far as we knew, stem cells had only been
obtained from donated embryos scheduled for discard or indefinite
freezing. ACT's research cannot, even now, be supported by public
 The isolation of such controversial research in fertility
clinics and biotech firms has circumvented the achievement of a
broad public understanding of the current state and future hopes of
stem cell science and short-circuited the process of consensus
building. Private concerns - which, understandably, want to protect
their intellectual property - usually conduct their work out of the
public eye. Notably the initial experiments at ACT - including the
recruitment of women paid between $3000 and $5000 for their eggs -
have been going on in secret for over a year.
 Secrecy and mystery seem to be a theme even in the
scientific community. Stem cell scientists themselves admit to
being blind-sided by the President's mention of 60 existing viable
cell lines. "I have no idea where this number  came from," said
John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, a leading stem cell
 There is danger lurking here. In the minds of citizens -
including scientists - ignorance is far from bliss. Being kept in
the dark breeds public distrust - just ask the purveyors of
genetically modified foods. Trust is the substrate of good science.
Undermining trust undermines the research itself.
 One fortunate consequence of Bush's partial lifting of the
moratorium on federal funding for stem cell research is the
increased opportunity for public knowledge, oversight, and debate.
His convening of a Council on Bioethics, chaired by Leon Kass of
the University of Chicago, to monitor the work on federally
financed stem cell lines cracks open a window into this exquisitely
complicated cellular science and offers an opportunity for us to
consider fundamental questions about life's beginnings and
 But the window to the stem cell world will not be fully
opened without participation of those not supported by government
money whose work will not be required to undergo scrutiny by the
NIH and the ethics council. Whether federally or privately
financed, stem cell researchers should contribute to public
consideration and conversation by discussing research goals and
protocols openly. A public-private partnership built on trust will
do much to advance both the science and the ethics of stem cells.
No matter who foots the bill, the private lives of stem cells must
be made public.