California Squirms with CIRM: The Embryonic Stem Cell Boondoggle

Centrally planned job creation and scientific research pose many of the same problems: extraordinary expense, a pattern of politically shaped insider transactions, and less than promising results. This occurs for substantially the same reason: government attempts to pick winners and losers in developing fields ignore the discipline of the marketplace and the wisdom of personal investment.

Consider the story of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). California voters approved Proposition 71 in 2004, which authorized the creation of the institute and permitted it to raise up to $3 billion in bond funding for grants over a 10-year period to pursue the promise of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) and human cloning. At the time of the vote, federal funds for ESCR were limited under a Bush Administration policy issued in August 2001, and no federal funds at all were available for research involving human clones.

The campaign for Prop 71, as well as the 2004 presidential campaign, deployed powerful images promising miracle cures from these lines of research. Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards captured public attention in October of that year speaking just after the death of the actor Christopher Reeve, who had suffered severe injury in an equestrian accident. Edwards famously said, “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk again. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

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Claims like these, also repeated in the heavily funded campaign for Prop 71, proved hard to resist in California and Missouri, which approved a similar ballot measure in 2006.

As the funds began to flow under Prop 71, a series of problems began to emerge. In addition to California’s burgeoning budget woes, the CIRM found itself embroiled in headlines in the state’s major papers about its extraordinarily high salaries, pattern of approving grants to universities that were represented on the governing body making funding determinations, and employment of former state political leaders as liaisons with the legislative bodies they had once served.

The biggest problem, however, was the lack of progress in terms of safe and effective human therapies resulting from CIRM’s work. In fact, by 2009 the failure to produce human therapeutic benefits using the embryonic cells, whose derivation is ethically controversial, led CIRM to redeploy the majority of its funding to the ethically uncontroversial alternative of adult stem cell research, whose derivation does not depend on the destruction of human embryos.

Over time voters began to perceive that the promise of overnight miracles was, to say the least, exaggerated. In 2007 New Jersey voters rejected then-Governor Jon Corzine’s proposal to spend $450 million in taxpayer dollars on ESCR. But California remains locked into a 10-year spending commitment. Now, the prime sponsor of the 2004 initiative, Bob Klein, who has become a $150,000-a-year employee of CIRM, has announced that he will seek another voter-approved infusion of $3 billion in 2014. Even the Los Angeles Times seems skeptical.

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Advocates of such initiatives, not to mention less intrinsically controversial ideas like wind farms and ethanol, have a basic conundrum to overcome: If an industry or research project is as remotely revolutionary and cost-effective as they say it is, isn’t it the kind of enterprise most likely to draw major venture capital and not compromise the public trust? And isn’t the wisdom of the marketplace, not the proximity of certain participants to political figures and the public treasury, the best way to separate the truth from fiction, the phenomenal from the merely fanciful?

Source material can be found at this site.

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