By Rupak Shah, Editor-at-Large
The concept of federalism technically refers to the distribution of power between the federal and state governments. Historically, though, the doctrine of federalism has become associated with those calling for greater state government autonomy. Throughout the 20th-century federalism arguments were advanced almost exclusively by those on the right. The Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian legal association, more recently has been a major force in promulgating an interpretation of the Constitution limiting the federal government's power.
On the other hand, progressives have traditionally fought for stronger federal control, particularly in the area of human rights. Now with Republicans firmly in charge in Washington, and given such recent legislation as the Class Action bill, pre-empting state law and moving cases from state to federal courts, many progressives are rethinking this logic. Some are wondering if progressive federalism, where states exercise their powers to innovate, develop and execute their own policy initiatives in specific areas, may be a superior alternative.
The question remains, though, as to whether state-driven legislation and governance, in specific matters, is in the interests of the United States?
Stem cell research is frequently cited as an example of progressive federalism. California has allocated over $3 billion to pursue embryonic stem cell research the federal government does not fund; New Jersey and Massachusetts may follow with their own programs. California's program involves dispersing $300 million per year, for 10 years, to researchers. Wisconsin, taking an alternate path, announced a $375 million privately- and publicly-funded program to establish the "Wisconsin Institute for Discovery." The funding for these two states alone will dramatically overshadow the $25 million the federal government annually provides.
The question remains, though, as to whether state-driven legislation and governance in specific matters is in the interests of the United States? Jeffery Drazen, MD, a professor at Harvard Medical School and editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, believes a state-based approach is inadequate. Drazen cites how statins, the cholesterol lowering drugs used by millions, were developed only with the concurrent work of thousands of researchers underwritten by the federal government.
Furthermore, federal funding also provides for uniform standards and openness. Federal grants require specific standards and peer review processes that ultimately enable scientists to more readily rely on third-party research. States funding their own initiatives will likely want to reap the benefits of their investment and not share findings with other researchers. Finally, state laws on stem cell research may conflict with the guidelines set forth by the federal government, leading to complications. State-based funding, for these reasons, may also hinder progress in the field.
It is also important to note that the battle for top research talent in the field of stem cell research is not going to be fought merely between California and Massachusetts, but between America and the world. Scientists in countries with a cumulative population of 3.4 billion people, including England, France, Japan, India and China, have access to stem cell research resources not available in the US. US-based scientists have been traveling to some of these countries to conduct research not possible at home. A key concern is that other countries will surpass American expertise in the field. South Korea in certain cases has already exceeded US-researchers' progress.
Given the limited federal government support, supporters of embryonic stem cell research can applaud recent state-based initiatives. The lack of a strong national policy on stem cell research, however, may inhibit progress and allow other nations to exceed our capabilities.