Georgia research leaders hope to stall future bills on stem cell restrictions

Georgia Research Alliance finds itself in a delicate spot when the issue of restricting stem cell research arises at the state legislature.

This past year, a bill restricting research was held in committee, a perfect place for it to stay for those who are responsible for nurturing Georgia’s bioscience industry.

But what if the issue re-emerges next year (as many on the board believe it will)?

Emory University President Jim Wagner brought up that question at Wednesday’s GRA board meeting. He wanted to know whether the high-powered board of university presidents, top business leaders and philanthropists would be reactive or proactive in case new bills are introduced.

The answer he received was that the research alliance should proceed with caution.

“I do know that the future of this organization is in danger if it’s perceived as being actively involved,” said Fred Cooper, a longtime Republican businessman who sits on GRA’s board. The state legislature provides millions of dollars to GRA every year to attract top scientists and to support high-level research.

Of course, GRA’s mission is all about promoting research, especially in the bio-sciences. And would the organization be true to its mission if it stood on the sidelines when legislators would try to restrict research in the state?

“The reason the bill was killed is because we had a couple of friends at a very high level who were willing to take a hit,” said Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia. “We don’t know how many times they can do that. It’s a difficult strategic issue. Every session is different.”
Then Adams said it’s important to “continue to support a couple of close friends who can Deep Six this” because of the potential negative impact it could have on the state’s image and the possibility that such legislation would cause certain scientists stay away from Georgia.

“Next week could have been inherently different,” GRA President Mike Cassidy said about the upcoming BIO convention that will bring 15,000 bio-industry researchers and companies from around the world to Atlanta.

Had the legislature passed the bill restricting stem cell research, Georgia’s hope to attract new investment out of BIO would have been severely hampered.

“The issue is perhaps less related to stem cell research than it is the role that the state government will play in the research agenda,” said Bud Peterson, the new president of Georgia Tech.

Then Cousins Properties’ CEO Tom Bell said: “This is more about politics than it is about science.” He said it’s hard to change people’s minds on these issues because it brings up their faiths and beliefs.

Other GRA board members said it’s important to have strong counter-arguments ready to explain why such legislation would hurt Georgia’s high-tech economic development efforts.

“The best thing to do is not let this out of committee,” Bell said.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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