Even as debate and votes are launched this week on health care reform bills that will hurt “our capacity to innovate” and “develop new therapies”, the Obama Administration moved yesterday to make federal funds available for controversial experimentation that has thus far failed to generate any human therapies. Taxpayer money will now flow to support research using cell lines derived from the destruction of human embryos. The National Institutes of Health approved the first 13 stem cell lines on Wednesday, and several dozen more of these lines are nearing approval for use in federally funded experiments.

The Obama policy, announced last summer, supplanted President Bush’s decision to allow federal support only for research using stem cell lines derived prior to August 2001, which was designed to elimination incentives for taxpayer support of embryo destruction. The funding has long begged the question why, if this research is certain to yield breakthrough treatments in short order, private investment is so sparse. In a reflection that even government-subsidized entrepreneurs are turning to stem cells derived or developed without ethical controversy, California has just awarded 10 of its 14 major research grants to projects that will employ non-embryonic stem cell lines.

Moreover, none of the projects funded in October by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine uses the human cloning method to create embryos so as to harvest their stem cells. That route is probably the most controversial of all, but the deeper question is whether any research that purports to be on the brink of revolutionary treatments and cures should receive government funds as a matter of first resort.