Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Blogosphere Simmers with Stem Cell Commentary

“Sweetheart deal,” “irrational pandering” by cities, subversion of the people's will – all these and more are part of the freshly flowering cyberspace commentary on California's stem cell agency.

In recent days,we have seen a spate of postings. They include a blog on the website of the influential Washington Monthly magazine and on the website of the American Journal of Bioethics.

Kevin Drum, who writes the Political Animal blog for Washington Monthly, called Prop. 71 “something of a sweetheart deal written by the biotech industry and rather clearly for the benefit of the biotech industry.”

His item triggered a string of comments, including one from a writer called Platypus, who described him(her)self as a “molecular geneticist who has reviewed grants for one of California's other targeted research programs (the California Breast Cancer Research Program).”

“There is almost certainly a large mismatch between the amount of money that is suddenly available ($300 million/yr) and the number of California-based researchers who currently are carrying out high quality stem cell research,” Platypus said. “So, a major challenge/serious problem is how to spend the money wisely. Right now you could fund all the really great stem cell research projects in California on a fraction of the available money.”

“So, what do you do with the rest of the $300 million/yr? Some of it could (and should) be used to build up research infrastructure and lure additional stem cell researchers to California, However, any benefit from this expansion in research capacity will take years. In order to show that Californians are getting immediate results for their tax dollars, there will be great political pressure to fund as many projects as possible as soon as possible, resulting in wasting a good deal of the public's money on mediocre (or worse) science.

“I hope the program succeeds, but it's going to be difficult to carry out successfully. The initial structuring of the program is key, so that it not turn into the California Biotech Industry Relief Act of 2004.

“Finally, you can't just buy a scientific breakthrough, no matter how much money you throw at the problem. There is great danger in misleading the public as to what we can and can't do as medical researchers.”

David Magnus, writing on blog.bioethics.net on the website of the American Journal of Bioethics, noted that Prop. 71 insulated funding and management from state lawmakers. He said the tough issues that must be faced are better handled by the stem cell agency's oversight committee rather than becoming "fodder for political gamesmanship in the legislature.”

“Unsurprisingly, the state legislature is unhappy with the fact that they are not relevant to an important undertaking within the state. State Sen. Deborah Ortiz (possibly motivated by a desire for higher public office) has abandoned her long standing support of stem cell research and is attempting to subvert the expressed will of the people,” said Magnus, who is director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

He cited Ortiz' measure to make it “illegal for women to voluntarily serve as oocyte donors for the expressed purposes of research (since in practice these women take drugs to superovulate to produce a sufficient number of eggs).”
“It is worth noting,” Magnus said, “that women routinely do this in IVF, and in fact, there is nothing to prohibit women from continuing to produce eggs as surrogates for other people trying to reproduce. Apparently Ortiz believes that assisting reproductively challenged individuals is sufficiently important that women should be allowed to make this decision, but research is not important enough to allow anyone to expose themselves to risk.

“This issue highlights the difficulty of turning these matters over to a legislature that fundamentally lacks knowledge or insight into the research process or into the details of the practice of medicine. The citizens of California wisely chose to pass a measure that had built in measures for oversight and public accountability—the fact that the legislature is left out is a poor reason to undo the will of the people.”

On the Local Liberty blog of the Center for Local Government at the Claremont Institute, Matthew Peterson deplored the “irrational pandering of California cities in their mad quest to land the offices of the
CIRM. One of the best summaries is, no suprise, posted on a blog(editor's note: Peterson was referring the “lusting” item on this blog).”

He added, “It's all too easy to simply throw money down for a quick fix—such fast food solutions inevitably lead to failure.

“In this case, even the friendliest supporter of all things CIRM has to stop and wonder. Sure there are ways in which the offices will bring financial benefits with them, but isn't a big part of the radical pursuit of the 50 person office really stemming from a desire to have a "cool," "cutting-edge," "progressive" image?”

Peterson is writing a piece for the Claremont Institute which will explain why he believes the stem cell agency “combines the worst tendencies of modern politics: the promise of a New Man, democratic forms masking government in the shadows and taxpayer-subsidized bureaucracy.”

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