Bernie Sanders on Stem Cells: Mixed Record Includes Votes for Criminalization of Some Science

Bernie SandersThe Capitol Times in Wisconsin ran a story just before the primary there on Bernie Sanders on Stem Cells, indicating that has held anti-stem cell research positions.

More specifically the article focuses on statements from former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, a Hillary supporter, attacking Bernie’s positions on stem cell research as well as citing an AP report that compares Bernie and Hillary’s positions on biomedical research.

Is this meme regarding Bernie on stem cells based on facts?

There are some real reasons for concern over Sander’s past track record of votes related to stem cell research and in particular to somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). For instance, the idea of criminalizing SCNT (also known as therapeutic cloning) for scientists is troubling:

“Sanders cosponsored bills in 2003 and 2005 that would have made scientists who conducted therapeutic cloning research subject to up to 10 years in prison.

Around the same time, Clinton co-sponsored bills in the Senate that would have expanded stem cell research. She also supported a measure in 2005 to ban human cloning while allowing scientists to conduct stem cell research.”

Us scientists take talk of throwing us in jail for doing research pretty seriously. I’m not clear on what Bernie was thinking in reportedly supporting such measures. So far I haven’t found a clear rationale for those votes.

Related to the SCNT votes the AP quotes internationally respected researcher Harold Varmus, former Director of the National Cancer Institute, in questioning Bernie’s perspectives on science:

“We were looking for signs that he is going to be a supporter of what science and technology can do and I think everyone in the country ought to be worried about that,” said Dr. Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize-winning former NIH director under President Bill Clinton.

“I am quite concerned about his stance on these issues,” Varmus said. “This is a litmus test. It was 10 years ago — it’s still a test that he failed in the view of many of us.”

On the other hand Bernie seems to be a consistent supporter of embryonic stem cell research:

“Sanders’ campaign policy director, Warren Gunnels, said in a statement Saturday that Sanders “strongly supports stem cell research, including research on embryonic stem cells. He understands that stem cell research holds the possibility of remarkable discoveries, even cures, for many illnesses — from Parkinson’s and diabetes to Alzheimer’s and arthritis.” He noted that Sanders supported 2006 legislation to lift funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.”

I’m still doing more research on the candidate’s positions on science more generally, but I was surprised to learn about Bernie’s mixed voting record on stem cells and the criminalization part is very troubling.

At this time I’m not sure who I’m going to vote for, but their positions on science will be influential in my decision.

Official message from Harold Varmus, Director of NCI, on Sequestration

Many of us in the scientific community who work on cancer got the message below about the extremely dire state of funding.

To the NCI-supported scientific community:
As you have heard and read, the Budget Control Act (aka “sequestration”) has gone into effect as of March 1st.  All components of the NIH, including the NCI, are working diligently to assess the impact of this unprecedented budget reduction on our ability to manage the current research portfolio and to continue to award new and competing grants in this fiscal year.  Knowing the anxiety that we all share about these developments, I am writing to report to you on our objectives, progress, and prognostications, even though a full account is not yet possible.
First, I must emphasize that we cannot provide a definitive and detailed account of our plans for the year at this time because we are currently operating on a so-called Continuing Resolution that extends only through March 27th.  Funding for the rest of the fiscal year (FY2013) will depend on Congress’s ability to propose and pass appropriations measures that carry us through September 30th.  This could be done through another Continuing Resolution, through a more typical appropriations bill, or through some kind of omnibus bill that bundles measures affecting many agencies.
At present, our Continuing Resolution provides funds to the NCI for the first six months of this fiscal year (October 1 – March 27) at 0.62% above last year’s level for the same time period.  Under these circumstances, as in many other years that have begun with Continuing Resolutions, we are paying both new and continuing grants at about 90% of expected levels—a conservative measure that acknowledges our uncertainty about the rest of the year.  Even in this especially difficult year, we anticipate increasing the funding level for those awards (by an amount still to be ascertained) once our funding for the full year has been determined.  As I have described in earlier messages and as is detailed on the NCI’s web site (, we continue to evaluate our applications for new and renewing grants by a careful combination of peer and programmatic review.  I urge you to visit the site to see the outcomes of that process for the past two years.
One of the guiding principles in our plans for adapting to sequestration is to maintain the number of competitive awards —new grants and renewals—at levels similar to that achieved in the past few years (over 1000 grants, with success rates of 13 to 14 percent).  These are, of course, fewer grants than we would like to make, and the grant sizes are often smaller than they should be.   Moreover, to achieve this goal, we need to make reductions, modest but significant, in virtually all of our extra- and intramural programs, including non-competitive (type 5) grant renewals, cancer centers, and research contracts.    In addition, we do not expect to reduce salaries, place employees on furlough, or take other drastic steps in making these adjustments.  Yet in the plan we envision, we hope to protect, as best we can, the potentially most vulnerable parts of our community:  fully trained scientists who are applying for their first grants, experienced investigators who are renewing their grants and maintaining their research teams, and the trainees we will need for cancer research in the future.
I intend to send you more details about plans for FY2013 once budgets for the rest of the year have been defined.  But I want you to know that those of us working on your behalf at the NCI are making every effort to sustain the functionality of our research enterprise in difficult times.
Harold Varmus
Director, NCI