November 19, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Didn’t Need California’s Stem-Cell Windfall

Would you donate money you don’t have to a rich uncle who has more than he needs?

California voters have a serious spending addiction. Each election, they approve almost every costly bond initiative that special interest groups put on the ballot: a new water project here, an education giveaway there, a sports facility for prisoners over yonder – whether the proposal makes fiscal sense or not. Sometimes these ballot initiatives duplicate existing solutions or pass without input from the stakeholders. It doesn’t matter; if it “sounds” good, the voters play sucker, encumbering the cash-starved state with bonded indebtedness for decades to come. The latest case is a real doozy. Even the scientists didn’t want it.

In 2004, a lawyer named Robert Klein convinced California voters to fund a new stem cell research institution with a cost of $3 billion – an astronomical amount at the time – because his son had contracted Type 1 diabetes, and he wanted scientists to be enabled to fix genetic diseases. This was in the days when scientists were promising miracle cures from embryonic stem cells, ethical qualms notwithstanding. CIRM was born: the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It wasn’t accountable to any government agency. As funds flowed in, accusations emerged: conflicts of interest, and low return on investment. Klein himself was the founding chair for the first 7 years. It wasn’t that CIRM didn’t have anything to show for its $3 billion windfall. There were jobs created and facilities built. But cures from embryonic stem cells didn’t materialize. In the meantime, scientific attention turned to the more ethical iPSC technology (induced pluripotent stem cells).

Last year, the windfall money ran out, and Klein was back with his hands out again. This time, his Proposition 14 asked for almost double the gift: $5.5 billion dollars, and California voters obliged, even though it incurs debt on the taxpayers for the next 30 years! Even Nature, looking at the situation from the viewpoint of scientists who never find it hard to resist unsolicited money, grimaced. “California’s vote to revive controversial stem-cell institute sparks debate,” writes Nidhi Subbaraman for Nature. “The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will receive billions in state funding — but some scientists oppose the plan.” The rich uncle doesn’t need more money from the paupers, in other words.

Voters in California have approved US$5.5 billion in funding for stem-cell and other medical research, granting a lifeline to a controversial state agency. But scientists are split over whether the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in Oakland is a worthwhile investment for the US state — or for the field of stem-cell research….

But critics of CIRM are concerned about oversight at the state agency, which has faced complaints about potential conflicts of interest among its board members for years. They also point out that the field has grown and now receives federal support, making state funding hard to justify — especially amid a pandemic that has imperilled California’s economy.

“Unfortunately, Proposition 14 sets a bad example for the use of public money for the advancement of science,” says Zach Hall, a neurobiologist who led CIRM as its first president between 2005 and 2007.

“As scientists, everybody always welcomes additional funding,” says Arlene Chiu, former director of scientific activities at CIRM. “But as a Californian, one wonders if there are better ways to do this.

Over the years since its founding, there have been times when CIRM’s “ethics have been strained to the limit,” one geneticist commented. Without sufficient oversight, CIRM has had activity without accountability, and research without results. No embryonic stem cells have cured anything because of CIRM – not even Type 1 diabetes, the very thing that motivated Klein to seek OPM (other people’s money) in the first place.

Now this “controversial” institution, thanks to Klein’s marketing skills, has received a lifeline to continue indefinitely, and Californians will be paying for it long after the science has moved on. Incidentally, Prop 14 did not include any provisions for stronger safeguards against bias and conflict of interest. Klein is only promising an “intent” to do better. Perhaps most ironic of all, the federal government has been funding stem-cell research for years without California’s unaffordable generosity.

See also our 2 July 2014 entry about the status of CIRM six years ago, with almost nothing to show for it after its first 10 years of operation.

The money would have been better spent on required classes for voters on basic economics and critical thinking skills.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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