Scientists can sue if not happy with funding priorities??

By Grant Jacobs 18/07/2010

Last week’s edition of Nature has an editorial (open access: web pagePDF file) reporting a new twist in a law suit involving Christian groups and two scientists suing US government departments over embryonic stem cell research.

The editorial has drawn a lively discussion in the comments.

The law suit, filed August last year would look to be another attempt by the religious right in the USA to ban embryonic stem cell research to suit their beliefs. The Nature editorial does not address the larger case (and neither am I here), but is focused on what they argue is specious and dangerous reasoning to allow the scientist plaintiffs to stand.

Nature reports that the scientists who were initially dismissed as plaintiffs have appealed, justifying their interest in the case through arguing embryonic stem cell research is competing with funding in their area, adult stem cell research:

To justify their standing as plaintiffs, they argue that because federal funding is now going towards research on embryonic stem cells, there are fewer funding dollars – and therefore ’increased competition’ – for research using adult stem cells.

As the editorial goes on to say:

It is hard to say which is more disturbing – the argument made by the two scientists or the fact that it was accepted by the court. Both issues set a dangerous precedent by suggesting that researchers are legally entitled to a certain portion of the funding pie, and that changes in a federal agency’s research priorities – which often occur as scientific disciplines evolve – open the agency up to lawsuits.

Taken at face value,* and writing just a little tongue-in-cheek, this would seem to amount to allowing envy to be a valid reason to be in court. (’Aawwh, they’re getting the money I’d like to have.’)

Or, alternatively, being stuck-in-the-mud and not moving with shifts in funding.

For one perspective on the legal story, see Hank Greely’s article on the Center for Law and the Biosciences blog at the Stanford Law School. He writes:

There is a deeper issue here — and I’m not enough of an expert on the NIH to know how big a deal this is.  This decision seems to let any researcher in a field who ends up with more competition for NIH grants as a result of a change in NIH guidelines or policies sue, alleging the policies are illegal.

Leaving the Nature editorial and the implications of the ruling to one side, it seems this ruling allows ’yet another’ another run at legal battles against embryonic stem cell research.


As Hank Greely wrote,

. . . now the government will have to go back and do again something we thought was out of the way.

* I’m not a lawyer: I’m not about to start interpreting it at a deeper level.

Update: Re-titled to better reflect the message. (Previous title: Legal ruling and stem cell research priorities (in USA))

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