Friday, July 07, 2006

Stem Cell Research and Bringing Camels into the Tent

"You’re at a point where you can change the world." -- Michael Amos of the Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Just one of the comments emerging from the search by the California stem cell agency for a plan on how to give away $3 billion.

Amos' comment was contained in a freshly posted document on the CIRM's Strategic Planning Web site. The 31-page report is a concise summary of the May 25 scientific conference and is filled with provocative and wide-ranging ideas, including reflections on the political impact of research that produces negative results.

A presentation, however, by Jonathan Shestack, a CIRM Oversight Committee member and co-founder of Cure Autism Now, caught our eye. He discussed the importance of sharing and how his organization was surprised by the lack of communication in the autism field. He also discussed the need to become an informational resource that benefits all research in a particular field.

Here are some excerpts from Shestack's comments as summarized by CIRM:
"The most important thing anyone said to us was that we had to 'become the data.' At that point we couldn't rely on people sharing data or raw materials. It was sort of an education to us that people didn't routinely share data."

"We realized we couldn’t rely on making people share so we had to become the central resource and that's what we did, and it's been the best return on investment."

"We were really sort of bootstrapping the field, but we have to guard against becoming institutional and what we hate the most. And that's the biggest danger CIRM has."

"Nothing good ever came to CAN (Shestack's group) without us giving things away. The more CAN gave things away and didn't worry about ownership or getting credit or getting cited, the better it was for us, not as an institution, but to the field. I have this deep feeling that the more you give it away the better it will be."

"What is true and does pertain to CIRM is how to bring many people together. We have complicated problems with different issues and it's a constant struggle to keep people in the tent. We started with the assumption that we would never be able to close the flaps of the tent and say we've everything. We're constantly trying to bring more and more people into the tent."
CIRM President Zach Hall spoke to the issue of what some might call managing expectations.
"Someone today said if you don’t have lot of failures you not being adventurous enough. I have commented on the gap between the political and scientific cultures in California. People have to understand that not all science succeeds. If you are too successful you're not adventurous enough on setting those goals. That's a balance we'll have to strike. It is an education matter in the end. It is also a policy matter and we'll discuss at a later session how to balance innovation and results and how to get the singles and not just the home runs to push things forward."
It is hard to overemphasize Hall's point. The public and advocacy groups want and are conditioned to expect instant solutions and cures. Indeed, American society is oriented in that direction. Without laying the groundwork as soon as possible and educating the public, CIRM could become ensnared in a few years in an unpleasant trap when critics begin to demand: "Show us the beef." At the same time, CIRM must demonstrate that is fulfilling the promise of Prop. 71. Juggling those two goals is a difficult task but one that CIRM must master.

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