To fill a void in federal supervision, the National Academy of Sciences is setting up a committee to provide informal oversight for research with human embryonic stem cells.
Contentious issues in biological research are usually handled by the National Institutes of Health, the government agency that finances most biomedical research. Because of the Bush administration's reservations about embryonic stem cell research, which it has allowed to proceed but only with cell lines established before Aug. 9, 2001, the NIH has been unable to specify what kinds of research are ethically acceptable.
Unlike many of the academy's committees, which are financed by the government, the new committee will be paid for by private sponsors.
"Our very strong feeling was that some sort of oversight was vastly preferable to the vacuum we have now," said Dr. Richard L. Sprott, executive director of the private Ellison Medical Foundation. Sprott said he hoped the academy's committee would "fill the gap in federal oversight and make sure the private sector does not call all the shots."
No researchers using human embryonic stem cells will be eligible to serve on the panel, a restriction that led some scientists to express concern that the academy might be succumbing to political pressure.
Frances Sharples, an official at the academy's National Research Council, said she had instituted the exclusion to avoid the conflict of interest that would arise if researchers working with human embryonic stem cells were to write the rules governing them.