When it came time to announce his lifting of the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research Monday morning, President Obama didn't just focus on stem cells. He made the announcement about something even bigger -- science itself.
"[I]n recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama said, according to his prepared remarks. "This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources -- it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient -- especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
There are a couple unsubtle messages in there. First, and most obvious, there's a repudiation of the Bush administration and its attitude towards science. That's something Obama has done before, but in this instance he made it official government policy, saying, "I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making."
There is a political benefit to overturning the ban. One recent poll showed that 68 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of independents favored loosening the federal restrictions. But there's also a potential drawback, politically -- stem cells had been an effective wedge issue for Democrats, and with the an lifted, they can no longer use the debate as a club with which to batter vulnerable Republicans.