Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Good News, Bad News and the California Stem Cell Agency

A few weeks ago an anonymous reader admonished the California Stem Cell Report to be more positive about the $3 billion agency and its efforts to develop the cures that its backers promised California voters more than eight years ago.

The comment was thoughtful and pointed out that “almost all the time” the agency “has done the right thing.” The reader made the remarks in the context of continuing coverage of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that found there were major flaws in CIRM's operations. (The reader's comment can be found here at the end of the post.)

Given the reader's remarks, it seems a good time to review the operating principles and biases of the California Stem Cell Report.

Bias No. 1: Openness and transparency come first in any government operation. They are fundamental to the integrity of all government enterprises. Bias No. 2: The California stem cell agency is generally doing a good job at funding stem cell research. We generally favor all manner of stem cell research. 

Regarding our operating principles, the goal is report news and information about the agency along with analysis and explanation. One key to understanding what this blog does is to understand what news is. News by definition is almost always “bad” as opposed to “good.” News deals with the exceptional. It is not news that millions of drivers commute to work safely each day on California freeways. It is news when one is killed in a traffic accident.

The California Stem Cell Report also tries to fill information voids. We understand that the stem cell agency believes certain information is not in their best interests to disclose. Such is always the case with both private and public organizations. However, it is generally in the public interest to see more information rather less, particularly information that an organization would rather not see become public.

Analysis and explanation of what the stem cell agency does is rare in the California media and even less seen nationally or internationally. This blog focuses primarily on the public policy aspects of the agency – not the science. The agency is an unprecedented experiment that brings together big science, big government, big academia, big business, religion, morality, ethics, life and death in single enterprise – one that operates outside the normal constraints of state agencies. No governor can cut CIRM's budget. Nor can the legislature. Even tiny changes in Proposition 71, which created CIRM, require either another vote of the people or the super, super-majority vote of both houses of the legislature and the signature of the governor. All of this is the result of the initiative process – a well-intended tool that has been abused and that has also created enormous problems for the state of California that go well beyond the stem cell agency.

Then there is the funding of the agency, which basically lives off the state's credit card. All the money that goes for grants is borrowed and roughly doubles the actual expense to taxpayers.

Since January 2005, we have posted 3,452 items on the stem cell agency because we believe the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is an important enterprise – one that deserves more attention that it receives in the mainstream media. Our readership includes persons at the NIH, the National Academy of Sciences, most of the major stem cell research centers in California, academic institutions in the Great Britain, Canada, Norway, Germany, Russia, China, Australia, Singapore and Korea – not to mention the agency itself and scientific journals.

We do not attempt to replicate what the California stem cell agency itself does, which is to post online a prodigious amount of positive stories and good news about the agency. To do so would serve no useful public purpose and would simply be repetitive. That said, there is room to acknowledge the work that the agency does, particularly the staff, but also the board. We try to point that out from time to time.

The California Stem Cell Report also welcomes and encourages comments, anonymous and otherwise. Directors and executives of the agency have a standing invitation to comment at length and have their remarks published verbatim, something almost never seen in the mainstream media.

Finally, given the questions raised by the Institute of Medicine about disclosure of potential conflicts of interests, the author of this blog and his immediate family have no financial interests in any biotech or stem cell companies, other than those that may be held by large mutual funds. We have no relatives working in the field. We do have the potential personal conflicts, cited generally by the IOM in connection with some CIRM board members, involving relatives who have afflictions that could be possibly be treated with stem cell therapies in the distant future.   
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