The conclusion stated in the title of this post may seem painfully obvious, but a new study published in Cell Stem Cell by Aaron Levine (assistant professor at Georgia Tech and author of Cloning: A Beginner’s Guide) backs it up with some hard data.
To come to this conclusion, Levine compared a country’s output of peer-reviewed publications from 1998 to 2006 related to human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) with it’s overall biomedical science publication output during that period. As a control, he also compared these two values with the country’s output of publications related to RNA interference (RNAi)–a line of research that is not politically or ethically charged. The data set for hESCs included all papers citing the initial hESC isolation paper by Thomson et al., the data set for RNAi included all papers citing the original RNAi paper by Fire et al., and the general data set included all papers citing any of 50 research papers randomly selected from a list of influential papers published in 1998. For each paper within each data set, the address of the corresponding author was used to determine which nation to credit that paper to. Results were then presented as each nation’s percent contribution to each data set.
The results are quite informative. As expected, there is very little difference between a nation’s output in general biomedical research and its output in RNAi research. There are, however, quite substantial differences between general output and hESC output. Five countries had a statistically significantly higher percentage of hESC research output compared to general research. In descending order, they are the UK, Israel, China, Singapore, and Australia. The UK produced 6% of the biomedical research publications in general, but 11% of the hESC publications (a differential of 5%). With the exception of Australia, all of these countries had very supportive and non-restrictive hESC research policies over the period of the study–allowing the creation of new hESC lines by somatic cell nuclear transfer and providing significant amounts of funding for hESC research.
On the other side, four countries had a significantly lower percentage of hESC research output compared to general research: the US, Japan, France, and Switzerland. Scientists in the US produced a very impressive 46% of the general biomedical research output, but just 36% of the hESC research output. This differential of -10% is much larger than the value for any other nation–partly due to the fact that the US produced a much larger proportion of total research than any other nation. Two of these nations–France and Japan–both have lower RNAi research contributions compared to their general biomedical research contributions, so they show a general deficiency in “hot” new areas of research. Switzerland, in contrast, only legalized hESC research in 2004–much too late to significantly influence these results. If the study was conducted sometime in the future, Switzerland would likely perform much better. But, its restrictive policies leading up to 2004 appear to have held it back significantly.
The US, however, is quite an interesting case. On one hand, the US produced more hESC research publications than any other nation. On the other hand, though, the US was the most significant underperformer when this output was compared to its general biomedical research output. This is likely due to the fact that generous federal funding of science in the US drives a very large output of research in general. Quite a bit of research on hESCs still occurs, but, due to the Bush Administration’s restrictions on federal funding of hESCs, this output is greatly diminished from what it should be.
Another interesting aspect of this study comes from an what could be considered an artifact in the methods. As Levine points out, he didn’t actually count papers that published results on hESCs, but papers that cited the original hESC paper. Therefore–as he once again acknowledges–he’s actually counting papers related to hESC research. Therefore, his results are much more open to interpretation than they would be otherwise. This could be quite interesting, because his results could indicate that restrictive policies inhibit research that’s even just related to hESCs. Or, it could just mean that the results would actually be more extreme if he only counted papers actually presenting results on human embryonic stem cells (which isn’t as interesting). Additional research would be required to determine which scenario is actually occurring.
So, the take-home message here is that science policy matters–particularly with regards to hESCs. Levine’s article pretty clearly correlates hESC research output with national policies. The UK, with it’s very pro-active agenda in this area has performed strongly. In contrast, the US has not lived up to its potential, due to the Bush Administration’s restrictions on federally funding hESC research. By virtue of its large and productive biomedical research apparatus the US is still producing a decent amount of hESC research in absolute terms. However, it could be doing much better. Without a major change toward more supportive policies, though, it’s hard to imagine that the US would improve on this front at all. More likely, the US will eventually begin to slip behind.
Levine, A.D. (2008). Identifying Under- and Overperforming Countries in Research Related to Human Embryonic Stem Cells. Cell Stem Cell, 2, 521-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2008.05.008
Update: Read more about the article (including the author’s perspective on his work) in my follow-up post.