Do you remember July 18, 2006? If you don't, here's a reminder: That was the day the US Senate voted to approve HR 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005. The Scientist's deputy editor, Ivan Oransky, remembers watching the roll calls on C-SPAN. He knew that the numbers weren't enough to overcome a presidential veto that would have required 67 "yeas" but the drama held his attention anyway, just in case there was a last-minute surprise.
Of course, there wasn't. The final vote was 63-37, four votes shy. And the next day, when the House of Representatives, which had approved the bill in May 2005, held its own vote, the bill's proponents couldn't muster a veto-proof vote either, passing the bill 235-193. (They needed 290.)
That, however, was before November's midterm elections. In Tennessee, Republican Bill Frist, who supported embryonic stem cell research, didn't run, and Bob Corker, also a Republican, opposes it. In two races Pennsylvania and Rhode Island the new senators have the same stance as their outgoing incumbents. But there are four new Senators who do support stem cell research. That's a net gain of three, for 66 yea votes on HR 810, if it's ever reintroduced.
In other words, just one vote could mean the end of a major roadblock to stem cell research in the United States. The House of Representatives needs to improve its vote by 55 yeas, but with a gain of 29 Democrats, that's looking more likely. And if the Senate musters a veto-proof vote, enough members of the House could be persuaded to vote for HR 810 there, too.
Here's what you can do: Target one of the 34 senators who say they oppose stem cell research with letters, editorials in the newspapers in their states, and other methods. Perhaps you could organize a visit by actor Michael J. Fox, whose television ads in Missouri seemed to help pass that state's Amendment 2 supporting stem cell research. You'll probably do best with those who are up for reelection in 2008, rather than the new or recently reelected ones. So here's a list: Georgia's Saxby Chambliss, Minnesota's Norm Coleman, North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole, Texas' John Cornyn, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, and New Hampshire's John Sununu. (Yes, those are all Republicans, but all the Democrats who are up in 2008 voted in favor of the stem cell bill.)
A gentle reminder: Just as the Democrats who now control Congress are on the hook for legislative action, embryonic stem cell researchers will also be held accountable. With power comes responsibility. So if Congress can be persuaded to pass a veto-proof bill on embryonic stem cells, the public's attention will then turn to scientists who claim there is a great future in such research.
Of course, scientific issues other than stem cells will face the 110th Congress. One of them is the future of the embattled FDA. For a report on what bills affecting that critical agency Congress will likely consider this year, see page 46. The hope is that Congress will do the right thing on any number of issues: appropriating more money to the NIH and NSF, voting to support alternative energy sources, and investigating allegations of political tampering in scientific policy. I'd suggest getting involved in those issues, too.