No position

March 09, 2005

WHY DO WE wonder what fate will befall the state's fledgling biotech industry? Its self-styled biggest booster, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., apparently can't decide whether he is in favor of a current bill to fund stem cell research. Some boost.

The bill would direct the state to spend $25 million per year on research using donated eggs that had been harvested as part of women's use of in vitro fertilization. The money would come from the cigarette restitution fund. The bill also would set into Maryland law a ban on human cloning; current law has no position on the matter.

After hours of sometimes searing testimony from researchers hot on the possibilities of these short-lived blueprint cells and from people with the debilitating neurological diseases who stand to gain from any breakthrough, the bill awaits committee votes in the House and the Senate.

Mr. Ehrlich's Department of Budget and Management finds fault with where the money comes from, but the governor claims to have no position. Some say his position is: "Don't bring me this bill, I don't want to decide." Unfortunately for him, it is the governor's role to decide. That's leadership.

The problem is not the money. The argument that state funds might be better spent elsewhere also would apply to the other biotech bills the governor is pushing. Those bills don't even have dedicated funding sources.

State words, and state funds, set the welcome mat for industry. That's how Maryland seeks more film and television production work here, that's how it works to retain manufacturing jobs.

Until recently, far-from-business-ready science funding has been primarily the purview of the federal government. But by excepting promising methods of stem cell research from any federal funding, President Bush has pushed the obligation onto the states, which, starting with California's $3 billion stem cell research initiative, have run with it.

The eagerness of other states, and the coyness of Maryland's governor, could choke off the budding biotech industry here.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center "discovered" the field, and they and those at the University of Maryland and elsewhere have been in the forefront in discoveries. But the state now is playing catch-up, and there is a real threat that Maryland's top minds could be lured elsewhere - and that the next batch of student-scientists would choose to go to schools in states that offer a range of research possibilities.

Researchers need to know they can follow where their next test results take them. Venture capitalists need to know that whatever stem cell method it takes to create the targeted cure, their scientists can use it.

The responsible move is for Governor Ehrlich to support the bill - or to tell Marylanders why he is willing to sabotage an industry he claims to favor.

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