By many measures, the US leads the world in biomedical discoveries, technologies and therapies. Recombinant DNA technologies for genetic manipulation were born in America and have produced a multitude of drugs and diagnostic devices by means of a new commercial entity, the biotech startup.

At a critical stage in US history, federal and local governments nearly banned recombinant DNA technology. But instead new regulations required academic and commercial research entities to submit their plans for approval to national and local advisory committees--and research prospered. This kind of regulation, which preserves the essence of unfettered research with the least intrusive bureaucracy and meaningfully protects scientists and society, could be called the American way. Pioneering research moves forward while society continually monitors and receives the benefits by translating discoveries into patient care.

History shows the folly of more oppressive interventions. Trofim Lysenko was a maverick biologist who convinced Josef Stalin in the 1920s that the Darwinian view of natural selection was wrong. Darwinian genetics consequently had no home in Russia for decades, while American agriculture and medicine prospered, very significantly aided by migrant Russian geneticists. The Russian way, then, held that ideology trumps science, leading to the loss of good science for generations.

The spectre of Lysenkoism haunts the US debate over stem cells. Because the isolation of stem cells from an embryo ends the possibility that it could be implanted in a uterus, people who feel any biological entity beyond fertilisation is human think this research is immoral. That view underlies the bills by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Dave Weldon of Florida that criminalise this practice.

As part of the administration's current policy that restricts federally funded use of stem cell lines to those made before August 2001, President Bush included a funding ban on production of pluripotent stem cells derived by nuclear transfer, which some call therapeutic cloning. The Weldon/Brownback bills would criminalise that practice, effectively limiting such research to non-US science. Thus, ideology has severely curtailed a foundation technology critical for rapid advances in human developmental biology, an understanding of the causes of human disease and development of potential human therapies. (The Weldon/Brownback bills are not law because a bipartisan coalition in the Senate has blocked their passage.)

Who loses from this federal ban? Not just life science research; not just the young scientists who wish to spend their lives pushing scientific frontiers for knowledge and for therapies. Most of all, it is the tens of thousands of patients who might have been helped. Which is the higher moral ground: saving the world from "therapeutic cloning" or saving the lives of the sick?

Fortunately, consistent with its constitutional right, in 2002 California passed bills to encourage and regulate embryonic stem cell and therapeutic cloning research. In November 2004 the state passed, by a 59 to 41 margin, a $3bn initiative to fund this research over 10 or more years. California has taken on the task of funding mainly basic research in these areas. The timelines to therapies are essentially what should be expected if the National Institutes of Health had funded this research.

While many people think it is a serious problem to substitute state for federal funding of science, I am not among them. I hope that this current intrusion of religion and ideology into federal research is only a transient aberration, but the lessons from the Lysenko experience tell us this situation could last a long time.