For months, advocates for state-financed embryonic stem cell research have worried that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was going to sidestep the issue this year. Perhaps he would join their cause, but only to finance adult stem cell research or to build laboratory space. After all, the governor was a no-show last year when stem cell research legislation died in the state Senate, the victim of a threatened filibuster. One of Mr. Ehrlich's top aides even submitted written testimony objecting to the bill. At best, the signals from the State House were mixed.
But in a welcome change of heart, the governor yesterday proposed a $20 million stem cell research fund - along with a number of related goodies including $13 million to build a center for regenerative research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. For those who have toiled long and hard to persuade state officials to invest in such promising research, it was a moment to savor - but with a bit of caution.
Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday he wants the money to be spent on the "projects with the greatest opportunity for therapeutic breakthroughs." That's precisely the right approach. But it's worrisome that the deputy secretary of the state's Department of Business and Economic Development, Christopher C. Foster, told a Sun reporter yesterday that preference may be given to non-embryonic research. That's unacceptable. Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick denied that such preference would be given. Let's hope so. Science, not politics or religion, ought to decide what type of stem cells should be studied.
Mr. Ehrlich's proposal also lacks a long-term commitment. (California, for instance, has pledged to underwrite stem cell research for a decade.) For that reason - and the need to clarify support for embryonic stem cell research - legislation that sets the program in law, and not just as a line in the budget, is required. Further, the governor would have the fund administered by the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-public agency under his control. Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a leading stem cell research advocate, believes it would be better run by an independent committee with peer review by qualified scientists - ensuring that politics (and partisan appointees) are removed from the process. We can only agree.
Democrats may harp that Mr. Ehrlich is a Johnny-come-lately and is moderating his views only because an election approaches, but that's politics. Between the House Democrats' open-ended $25 million-a-year stem cell research legislation and Mr. Ehrlich's one-year $20 million allotment in the budget, it's reasonable to assume that Senate opposition can be overcome and a compromise bill can be passed. Since stem cell research holds the promise of one day treating myriad diseases from Parkinson's to juvenile diabetes, that's a welcome development no matter who takes the credit for it this fall.