Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Litany of Losses

The score looks dismal in week 13 in the life of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

But the truly sad part about it is that much of the pain was unnecessary and is now hobbling an agency that was born with great expectations.

Here is a partial scorecard:

1. The agency now faces a potential ballot fight, possibly as early as next fall, if a proposed constitutional amendment to tighten oversight passes in time.

2. The bond market, where the agency hopes to raise billions, is judged to be skittish about any offerings given the current state of litigation against the agency.

3. Powerful supporters in the California legislature are now wary and suspicious, aligning themselves with those who would be ecstatic if the agency vanished from the earth.

4. Critical and nagging questions have been aired in the media across the country concerning the conduct of the agency. Given the pack nature of the press, more can be expected.

5. The personal integrity of the chairman of the agency has been questioned in the Capitol, with some describing him as a “megalomaniac” who is damaging the agency that he was so instrumental in establishing.

On the other hand, CIRM has appointed a well-regarded scientist, Zach Hall, as its interim president and adopted a conflict of interest code for its employees. Creating a new agency is a slow and tedious business, so it may be unreasonable to expect much more. CIRM yesterday, however, touted its progress by saying “we have now held 13 open public meetings in just 13 weeks.” Holding a meeting is about process as opposed to accomplishment, a fact that the businessmen and women on the Oversight Committee do not need to be reminded of.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was certain to face controversy and opposition during its infancy just as it will during its entire existence. But some sort of honeymoon normally would have been expected. The promise of finding cures or treatments for everything ranging from diabetes to cancer is tremendously alluring. The agency also was expected to make California the stem cell capital of the world, creating jobs, attracting talent and generating prestige for the state.

But today the agency is under heavy assault. It is one thing to irritate the sometimes toothless watch dog groups. It is another to antagonize heavyweight lawmakers.

CIRM now must focus much of its energy in rebuilding support in the Capitol. It will need to do everything possible to prevent a constitutional amendment from being placed on the ballot to tighten controls over the agency. The last thing the agency needs is a statewide election contest over matters that should have been dealt with more skillfully. The sooner the issue is put to rest the better.

Such an effort in the Capitol will cost money and time, particularly time lost because of the distractions from the difficult and important business of creating a new agency.

A month ago, it certainly would have been much easier to discuss legislative concerns and arrive at solutions instead of dueling with press releases and nationwide Internet campaigns. No doubt some of the folks on the fringe would have never been satisfied short of taking their pitch to the California Supreme Court. But other critics seemed to be looking for some overt action as an assurance that their concerns would receive a serious hearing. That did not seem to be forthcoming.

In the wake of the jubilation over the passage of Prop. 71 less than five months ago, few would have foreseen the current state of affairs. Let's hope a new path can be quickly charted.

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