A decade ago there was a culture war surrounding human embryonic stem cells - people assumed it was a science issue, though in hindsight it was mostly politics. hESCS had never been funded by the federal government and the ethical and legal implications were unclear so President Bush compromised and limited federal funding to existing lines. Though the NIH was thrilled they could now pursue it for the first time (1), his political opposition claimed science was "banned". If you watched "The West Wing" back then, you were assured Parkinson's Disease would be cured by 2014 if Republicans got out of the way

Small wonder that today, six years after President Obama lifted the 'ban' by slightly modifying the number of stem cell lines that could be used (2), the public wants to know where all those breakthroughs are.  They are not wrong for feeling jaded. Even prior to 2009, human embryonic stem cell research had not been hindered - it was new when Bush approved it and states and corporations could continue to do whatever they wanted - but it sure was hyped. Yet nothing came of it in the last 13 years, even though California also spent $3 billion funding it.

Instead of advancing science, President Obama's actions in 2009 instead showed that science was another arm of politics and it has left science acceptance in crisis. Now that science is regarded as partially politics and spin, subjective opinion with the funding the primary criteria for legitimacy, it can't be a surprise that one party doesn't trust food, energy or medicine while the other does not trust global warming or evolution.

Some science public relations groups are playing on the modern cultural topology that has been given to them - they sell sizzle rather than steak. NASA can't let a month go by without slipping 'implications for life on other planets' into a press release but no one takes that seriously, yet for scientists caught up in more tangible hype waves there are consequences. Life from arsenic, faster-than-light neutrinos and the Human Brain Project all fell victims to their own PR machines. Good luck with your careers after that, scientists.

What about stem cells? Today, people not only expect clinical versions of stem cell therapies to be available under their insurance, they think they already exist. That is bad news for serious scientists in the field(3).  A new analysis of 307 Canadian, American and British articles covering translational stem cell research between 2010 and 2013 found they were "highly optimistic about the future of stem cell therapies and forecasted unrealistic timelines for clinical use".

And it wasn't science journalists and bloggers framing it for political gain this time, the culprits were scientists playing up their research. 69 percent of all news stories that provided timelines claimed 5-10 years or even less. Left out of the stories is that the only FDA-approved clinical trial of an embryonic stem cell-derived therapy was canceled in 2011 because it didn't work, or that it takes a dozen years and around $2 billion to get FDA approval for anything important.

"As the dominant voice in respect to timelines for stem cell therapies, the scientists quoted in these stories need to be more aware of the importance of communicating realistic timelines to the press," University of Alberta researcher Kalina Kamenova said in their statement.

"Pop culture representations have an impact on how the public perceives the readiness of stem cell research, and that in turn feeds into stem cell tourism, marketing of unproven therapies and even the public's trust in research. We wanted to provide findings that would help inform the issue," said University of Alberta law professor Timothy Caulfield.

When lawyers tell you to dial down the hype, it is time to reflect on your demeanor.


(1) NIH Director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein: "We are pleased with the President's decision to allow the use of Federal funds for important basic research on human embryonic stem cells. The approach he has outlined is sound..." 

(2) Yet somatic cell nuclear transfer is actually banned by President Obama. You won't find Union of Concerned Scientists writing any new petitions objecting to White House bans in science until at least January of 2017, however.

(3) Even California, which clearly funded hESC research because Bush was against it, isn't interested in pursuing it any more. They basically created a 56 person company where the manager gets $500,000 a year to redistribute money that won't pay off because, unlike the hype of a decade ago, breakthroughs are actually not just around the corner. If you are a researcher reliant on that money, you need a back-up plan because all of the hype and money is now going toward a Light Rail from north Fresno to south Fresno.