Sunday, March 06, 2005

New Frontiers: Stem Cells and the Web

Only about one out of every five million Californians was able to make it to this month's meeting of their state's new stem cell agency.

Yet, nearly half of all the families in California could potentially benefit from programs that the multibillion dollar agency is just starting.


It may be that the old saw about the making of sausages and laws also applies to the making of a new bureaucracy. It is an untidy business, perhaps best left unobserved by the overly fastidious.

The new institute, however, is also making history with forays into the frontier of medical science. Cures or vastly improved treatment for such ailments as diabetes, cancer, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, ALS, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and heart disease are all part of its goals.


Its leaders have promised the highest and best standards for its science. That promise should apply as well to the openness and accessibility on the Web of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.


It certainly would benefit the many Californians living with the diseases targeted by CIRM. Many are not able to travel to CIRM meetings but might find them of interest if the sessions were broadcast on Web. Webcasting would be of enormous utility to thousands in the scientific community, academic world, biotech businesses as well as legislative and governmental officials.

But Webcasting should only be a start. When the Web became a reality for most state agencies, they were living in a world that had only recently abandoned typewriters. Bringing information and public records online was an expensive and time-consuming process – not to mention a frightening one for the officials who preferred life in semi-obscurity.

Today's technology allows – virtually insists – that all of CIRM's public records be available online and easily searchable. The agency has moved in that direction already with its first efforts on the Web. Much more can be done.

CIRM can readily establish new performance levels for Internet access to government agencies, since it is not hobbled with the baggage of the past. Doing so would advance the institute far along the path of fulfilling its promise of maximum openness. As CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has said, what this agency ultimately generates must be shared with the world.


The value of open Web access involving grants and research (with the obvious usual limitations) would seem immeasurable. Web access would achieve other goals as well, such as reducing staff time involved in routine phone calls and conventional mail. Given the picayune size (50 persons) of the agency's staff, that would seem something worth doing.

We must admit the possibility of the opposite result. Years ago, the advent of computers was predicted to eliminate paper in offices. In fact, paper multiplied geometrically. It could be that unprecedented openness could lead to a wave of totally unexpectedly public interest in CIRM. Not that that would be so bad.

It is not often that government agencies can make fresh starts or have new beginnings. CIRM stands in an historic position. It may be the first time that government has embarked on such a massive effort on the frontiers of biology and theology, life and death, and, yes, even sex.

Opening a frontier in cyberspace may not double attendance at CIRM meetings to as high as, let's say, two out of every five million Californians. But it would be a shame to pass up an extraordinary opportunity to set a global benchmark for openness and public access.
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