When I was growing up, Atlanta and Georgia were viewed as beacons of progress in the South.
On virtually every level, Georgia outpaced its sister Southern states — largely because its leaders stayed focus on what was best for the state’s economic development future.
Now, one bill in the state legislature threatens to reverse Georgia’s progressive reputation — a bill that would outlaw embryonic stem cell research in our state.
After the Georgia Senate passed that bill, Shepherd Center’s Chairman James Shepherd received a call from a group that had been considering conducting clinical trials at the center. The Shepherd Center treats more spinal injuries than any other institution in the country making it an attractive site for research.
Shepherd was told that if Georgia were to enact such a bill, the company would be moving its research operations to Birmingham.
The ominous signs have been present for the last couple of years when a bill with similar language was being considered.
At the time, Dr. Marie Csete, one of Georgia’s most widely recognized scientific researchers and a leading stem cell researcher at Emory University, testified saying that such a bill could prohibit her research. “I’m really worried this is a slippery slope,” Csete said.
Not surprisingly, today Csete is the chief scientific officer of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, one of the entities funding by a $3 billion stem cell initiatve in California.
So Georgia said good-bye to one of the nation’s top scientists, who was a magnet for federal and private research dollars, contributing to the state’s economic development.
On paper, Georgia leaders claim to want the state to be a leader in bioscience and biomedicine. It has spent years and millions of dollars attracting eminent scholars to create a critical mass of research so that Georgia will become a center for science, cutting edge technology and solid research.
But one bill, like the one that passed the Senate a couple of weeks ago, can undermine all that work.
If the House passes similar legislation, Gov. Sonny Perdue already has said he would support making it law and erroneously added that it would not impact Georgia’s economic development efforts.
Consider this. In May, Georgia is hosting the international convention — BIO — which will bring some of the top bio-scientists and industry leaders to Atlanta. If such a bill passes, several economic development officials are saying privately that it will give Georgia “a black eye” and make us “the laughing stock” in the country.
That’s not quite the message we had in mind when we announced the tremendous economic development benefits Georiga would enjoy by hosting BIO.
For retired Delta Air Lines’ CEO Leo Mullin, this is not just about economic development. It’s about people’s quality of life.
Mullin, who still lives in Atlanta, is chairman of the National Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He and his wife, Leah, became involved with the organization when one of their children was diagnosed with diabetes 26 years ago.
“Stem cell research represented some of the greatest hope that we have ever had,” Mullin said. But much of that progress was put on hold during the administration of George W. Bush, who placed restrictions on stem cell research.
When President Barack Obama recently lifted those restrictions, Mullin was in Washington D.C. to join in the celebration.
His “joyful” mood quickly turned to shock upon returning to Georgia and reading the headline: “State could restrict research on embryos.”
As Mullin sees it the legislatio would “brand our state as anti-science,” and “it will hamper economic development when Georgia needs it most, as scientifically-oriented companies opt to go elsewhere.” It would serve as a “competitive blow” to our state.
As Shepherd sees it, the bill as proposed is “ill conceived.”
“It makes us look like one of the least progressive states in the nation,” Shepherd said. “We claim to be an international city on the cutting edge. We do have cutting edge research going on at Emory, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia. But if this bill passes, it will kill a lot of that. People will view Georgia as a hostile environment in which to do business or research.”
Last year, when BIO held its convention in San Diego, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to boast about the enormous investment ($3 billion) his state was making in the field of stem cell research. Undoubtedly, attendees left BIO feeling as though California was an enthusiastic partner in their own research or related economic development.
So when BIO comes here in May, what in the world will Gov. Perdue say?
It’s of great concern to educators, scientists, researchers, health care professionals, economic development officials and others who just want to see scientific advances take place in Georgia.
“We are now behind Alabama in our approach to the exciting research and science underway across the country,” Shepherd said. “We now rank behind Alabama in being a progressive state.”
It makes me long for the days, not so long ago, when Atlanta and Georgia were on the right side of history.