Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Boom in Privatized Science and the California Stem Cell Agency

Billionaire science is booming, the New York Times said today, and it is raising serious concerns along with a hearty huzzah for the infusion of increasingly scarce cash for research.

The lengthy piece by William Broad was headlined, 
“Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing American science."

 Broad wrote,
“American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise. 
“In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research. 
“The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.”

The trend has implications for California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which will run out of cash for new awards in 2017. It is currently engaged in what it calls a “sustainability” effort, which simply means it is searching for ways to raise more money. One possibility is another state bond measure, which would require voter approval and an expensive ballot campaign. Another more likely prospect is some sort of private funding arrangement, including creation of a nonprofit organization to accept donations from the very sort of billionaires, plus businesses, that the Times discussed.

In 2008, Eli and Edythe Broad gave $25 million
to UC San Francisco to help build a stem cell
research center funded by the California stem
cell agency. Then Gov. Schwarzenegger (at left)
attended the groundbreaking. Broad stands with
 his wife. Former CIRM Chairman Robert Klein
is in the background with a gray tie.
UCSF photo
The list in the Times is relatively long and includes Bill Gates of Microsoft, Eric Schmidt of Google and Larry Ellison of Oracle. Also mentioned was Eli Broad, who has made large contributions to stem cell efforts in California. Not mentioned, oddly enough, was Denny Sanford, who last fall donated $100 million for stem cell research at UC San Diego.

The Times article said the “personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles some in the science establishment.” Also raising concerns is the enrichment of elite universities at the expense of poorer ones.

Nonetheless, reporter Broad wrote that the influence of billionaire donors is likely to grow given their wealth and the national budget wars. One study cited in his piece shows that at the 50 leading science research universities, private donors already account for roughly 30 percent of the schools' research money.

One of the priorities of the private donors is translational research, the type currently being emphasized by California's stem cell agency, which some fear could lead to the neglect of basic research. The Times cited an effort begun in 2000 by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The Broad story said,
“With great skill, it used the money to establish partnerships across industry and academia, smashing through the walls that typically form around research teams. By early 2012, the financial surge produced the first treatment for an underlying cause of cystic fibrosis.”

The timeline on that treatment is not too different than what might be considered the timeline set in Prop. 71, which created the California stem cell agency. The ballot measure provided for 10 years of funding via money borrowed by the state. Although the measure was passed in 2004, legal battles delayed issuance of the bonds, meaning that the agency's financial clock has not yet completely run out. As for commercial cures built on agency research, no one at the agency is publicly predicting their entry into the market place within the next three years.
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  1. Anonymous10:32 AM

    It has become a very odd pattern that CIRM meetings are issuing RFA/initiative only for “spending in projects that agency is already funding”, most of those projects are conflict of interest or directors’ own interest, not already fit the legal statute of Prop 71. It raises some big questions, how many CIRM directors are actively pursuing their own interests behind the close door? What they have to hide from the public? For examples, CIRM 5 year-old leadership awards are Sanford Burnham & UC interests, most of CIRM awardees have not done any stem cell research to lead, just easy cash for them. Coriell, cellular dynamics, CIRM disease teams and industry partnership are Sanford Burnham (life Tech & Greg Lucier), Mahendra Rao (Life Tech), UC, Stanford interests. Ellen Feigal actually held close door meetings only to help their hand-picked disease teams and industry partnership before the agency even made any announcements. We know by now which director’s interest is already funded by the agency, not any interest of the public or Prop71. In most government agencies, it’d be considered as corruption, how they got away from it?

  2. David: Thanks for the positive take on the crowdsourcing that revealed flaws in the STAP papers. The hype about the method being easy was like catnip to the scientific community, and the sharing of information saved a great deal of precious time and even more precious research funding by revealing that the method was, in fact, not easy at all.

    I need to bring up a minor point that isn't trivial. I know that it's simple shorthand to describe Denny Sanford's gift for stem cell translation as being donated to UC San Diego. But Denny himself would correct you and say that while UCSD is managing the distribution of the funds, the donation was to the consortium of institutions in La Jolla: UCSD, Sanford/Burnham Institute, the Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute, and La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology.

    1. Jeanne: Thanks for noting that the Sanford donation involved more than UC San Diego. I will do better in the future.