Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Media Coverage: California Stem Cell Agency Receives Slight Whack in Los Angeles Times

California's $3 billion stem cell research program, now down to only $27 million, popped up in the Los Angeles Times this week in a piece that dealt with presidential politics, term limits and dubious ballot measures.

The mention consisted of only two paragraphs. But it demonstrated, at least for the state stem cell agency, the flaws of excessive generalization in P.T. Barnum's famous saying that “Any kind of publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote yesterday about "crowd pleasing" pitches to voters that actually contain "few virtues."  The starting point was term limits for congressmen and women. Hiltzik noted that such measures, in fact, do not serve the public well because they enhance the power of lobbyists. And then he went on to discuss ballot initiatives in California. 

Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of "Big Science," wrote, 
"It's not unusual for ballot measures to win the approval of voters despite provisions that work directly against voters’ interests. That includes Proposition 71 of 2004, which created California’s $6-billion stem cell program. (See below for a look at the $6 billion figure and the nominal cost of the stem cell effort.)
"Proposition 71 was sold to voters as a gateway to cures for a host of intractable diseases, a promise hopelessly incompatible with the way science is done. Its promoters also tried to make a virtue out of its nearly total independence from legislative oversight, another artifact of anti-government sentiment. The stem cell program has indisputably supported excellent science, but its lack of legislative oversight remains a flaw."
The lack of legislative oversight will continue under the proposed 2020, $5.5 billion ballot initiative that is now before California election officials. If approved by voters in 11 months, the initiative will save the California stem cell agency from financial extinction. 

The new initiative is sponsored by Robert Klein, the first chairman of the state stem cell agency. Klein's measure does not address a number of sharp criticisms of the program, including those found in a $700,000 study of the agency by the prestigious Institute of Medicine

Klein's new initiative is sort of a son of Proposition 71. Klein also directed the writing of the 2004 measure, which did not provide any source of stem cell funding beyond the $3 billion in state bonds. 

As for the $6 billion figure cited by Hiltzik, it originated in a 2004, state ballot analysis of Proposition 71. The figure was an estimate of the total cost, including interest, to taxpayers of the stem cell agency, which is financed by $3 billion borrowed by the state. 

The interest estimate did not anticipate the 2008 Great Recession and the related drop in interest rates. The latest estimate is that the total will be about $4 billion. Read more about that estimate here. 

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