Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Tin Ear of the Private Sector

The will of the people vs. obstructionism, knowledge and expertise vs. public-minded objectivity – some of the constructs bandied about in the debate about conflicts of interest at the California stem cell agency.

There is a certain amount justifiable self-interest as well.

Millionaire Ed Penhoet, vice chairman of the Oversight Committee, told Terri Somers of the San Diego Union Tribune, "I'm spending an enormous amount of time and effort purely in the public interest. I'm not willing to sacrifice the entire rest of my life, which has been in the biotech world, because it doesn't make any sense."

However justified Penhoet's statement may be, it demonstrates one of the differences between the private sector, which has provided many of the Oversight Committee members, and government. A skilled practitioner in the public sector would not have said what Penhoet did. It's impolitic and can be misconstrued. It sems to indicate that he would place his private business above his public responsibilities. And it implies a petulant belief that it is wrong even to ask questions about possible conflicts.

The stem cell agency is continuing its drumbeat that the charges of the critics are meritless because they fly in the face of the will of the people as expressed in November's election. This is a dangerous argument that is not in the best interests of the agency. It places the agency on a collision course with all critics, however warranted their criticism. It has already pushed stem cell agency supporters into hostile positions in which they have formed alliances with those whose greatest desire is close down the agency.

The objectivity vs. expertise argument was also engaged last week as part of the reaction to charges by the Center for Genetics and Society. Somers' story and one by Steve Johnson in the San Jose Mercury News touched on the subject.

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