Billions more of public money for stem cell research?

A scientist with a pipette doing cellular research. (Photo: 18percentgrey, via Shutterstock)

At a time of budget crisis, Proposition 14 commits California to spending $5 billion (plus interest) that we don’t have, on a bureaucracy we don’t need, in pursuit of cures no one can guarantee. 

Specifically, Prop. 14 would refinance the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), also known as the state stem cell agency. CIRM was established by a 2004 proposition and has essentially run out of money. By law, it has a very specific governance structure that effectively isolates it from legislative oversight, and gives most of the seats on its governing board to representatives of the research organizations that receive its grants.

CIRM’s Chair and CEO are paid twice as much as the governor of California or the director of the National Institutes of Health.

Let’s be clear about what this means. First: CIRM is funded by money derived from state bond sales. Repayments on this debt come straight out of the state general fund — before a penny can be spent on teachers’ salaries, fire fighting, housing, or anything else.

Second: Despite CIRM being a publicly funded state agency, our elected officials have no say over how it is run, how it spends money, or who makes these decisions.

Third: Those decision makers are handing out public money to institutions where they and their fellow board members have positions and reputations that are enhanced by landing huge awards. David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report has calculated that “79 percent of the $2.7 billion in grants has gone to institutions that are linked to members of its governing board.”

Moreover, CIRM’s Chair and CEO are paid twice as much as the governor of California or the director of the National Institutes of Health.

The National Institutes of Health now fund stem cell research to the tune of well over $2 billion a year.

These built-in flaws have raised eyebrows from the start. Subsequently, both the California Little Hoover Commission and the National Academies of Medicine examined CIRM’s structure and operations. Both investigations recommended changes, noting in particular the obvious conflicts of interest on CIRM’s board and the clumsiness of its 29-member size.

Proposition 14 could have addressed these defects. Instead, it made them worse: It enlarges the board to 35 members, still mostly drawn from representatives of the universities, companies, and research institutes that receive its grants.

Notably, the editorial boards of the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and San Jose Mercury News, among others, all recommend voting “no.” So do Zach Hall, the first president of the agency, and Jeff Sheehy, a member of CIRM’s board from the start. Even Jeanne Loring, a prominent CIRM-funded stem cell researcher, has “mixed feelings” about Prop. 14, largely because of the conflicts of interest.

Much has changed since 2004. The Bush administration’s funding restrictions — the original justification for CIRM — were overturned by President Obama in 2009. The National Institutes of Health now fund stem cell research to the tune of well over $2 billion a year. Science has moved on, too with the development of induced pluripotent stem cells.

The 2004 proposition campaign has been widely criticized for hype: over-promising the imminence and certainty of breakthroughs. The advocates called their operation “Cures for California,” but these have been in short supply. They also said that stem cell research would enormously reduce California’s medical costs, but there’s no sign of that.

The campaign for Prop. 14 follows the same pattern. It claims that the new multibillion dollar investment has “massive savings potential” and a “low impact” on the budget. Skepticism is definitely in order.

Stem cell research is worthwhile, and California’s funding through CIRM did jump-start a lot of it. But it was never presented as a permanent way of allocating state funds. It’s time to let this work fly on its own.

Editor’s Note: Pete Shanks is a Santa Cruz-based writer and editor who regularly consults with and blogs at the Center for Genetics and Society. The views expressed in this commentary are his own; he does not represent the Center.

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