President Bush's decision to allow federal funding of experiments using the 60 embryonic stem cell lines he estimates were derived prior to Aug. 9, 2001, has been accepted by many in the scientific community as a workable compromise that will allow promising research to proceed. But because the decision does not put in place or even suggest the outlines of an ethical framework for future decisions about controversial research, it simply may lay the groundwork for future rancorous debates.

Limiting federal funding to existing cell lines allowed Bush to claim that he adhered to campaign promises not to allow the destruction of embryos. Thus he aimed to satisfy the large numbers of Americans who polls say favor stem cell research, without completely breaking faith with his most conservative backers.

The decision also provides running room for companies such as Geron Corp. and Australia's BresaGen Ltd., which now will be able to seek academic collaborations for their stem cells lines after not passing muster under NIH guidelines promulgated under the Clinton administration.

But such political expediency, coupled to the enormous political attention and exaggerated public expectations reflected in the general media, suggest that Bush may have dug a deeper hole for the biomedical research community. The next time science bumps up against religious sensibilities, it might not be possible to conduct research in private for years before government steps in with unpredictable results.

Aug. 9 Rubicon

Indeed, it is already the common wisdom that the White House logic soon will come under challenge by members of both parties on Capitol Hill. Administration officials will be challenged to explain why it is acceptable to use cells derived from an embryo destroyed on Aug. 8 but not on Aug. 10.