Monday, June 09, 2008

CIRM Dredging Up Old Economic Controversy

Four years ago, supporters of California stem cell research ballyhooed the economic impact of the Prop. 71, the ballot measure that created the state's $3 billion inquiry into human embryonic stem cells.

A $200,000 study commissioned by the Prop. 71 campaign predicted healthcare savings of as much as $12.6 billion over 30 years and a net state government profit of at least $1 billion. The study was instantly a bone of contention during the campaign and long after and held up as an example of stem cell hype.

"Hopelessly optimistic" was how one reasonably detached writer, David Hamilton, described the campaign analysis in a "biotech bubble" story for

The study was ordered up by then Prop. 71 campaign chief Robert Klein. Now chairman of the California stem cell agency, Klein has commissioned another economic impact report by the same organization, Analysis Group of Palo Alto, Ca. This time the study will cost only $49,900 but it comes at the expense of taxpayers – not campaign donors. It also diverts funds from other activities of the stem cell agency. The question is why?

With few exceptions, no one is likely to deny that California's stem cell research can benefit the state economically. The principal dispute is about the magnitude of the impact. However, this latest study suffers from the same problem as the first. It is not likely to produce a finding that runs contrary to the beliefs of Chairman Klein and other supporters of the stem cell research. That leaves CIRM open to credibility challenges.

The study is also not necessary to convince true believers. And adamant opponents will never believe it. That leaves only a tiny segment of the population as a propaganda target, if one is to believe Klein. He has repeatedly minimized the size of that group, citing overwhelming support for hESC research among the general population.

The study will certainly generate several results – none of which is favorable for CIRM. It will raise questions about unnecessary spending of taxpayer money. It will rekindle a debate about the true economic impact of CIRM, stirring up controversies better left dormant. And it will feed concerns about stem cell hype on the part of the agency and raise questions about its credibility.

Here are samples from the David Hamilton's piece Feb. 6, 2007, in which the former Wall Street Journal reporter wrote that the campaign study appeared "hopelessly optimistic."

"To begin with, they assume that stem-cell treatments will work in the first place. Many of the most hyped biotechnology innovations of the last 25 years have yet to live up to their early promise. And when they do work, they often tend to improve medical care at the margins instead of revolutionizing it."

"What about the potential of stem-cell research to spur economic development—can a state that sponsors stem-cell research hope to attract cool scientists who will then draw others, plus a coterie of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists? Biotech companies do tend to cluster in places like San Francisco and Boston, but their overall impact on regional economies tends to be limited. While they often pay high salaries, the vast majority of these companies are tiny, unprofitable startups with fewer than 100 employees. They frequently collapse well before they earn a dollar in sales. Even successful biotech ventures are often bought out by distant drug companies, which sometimes shut down the acquired company while transferring its research activities and any products elsewhere."

Hamilton also cited a study by Richard Gilbert, a UC Berkeley economist, who estimated California's potential royalty income from CIRM research could be as low as $18 million compared to $1.1 billion suggested by the 2004 study by the Analysis Group.

We could be wrong about all this. Perhaps the Analysis Group will produce a study that is hailed as balanced, objective and useful. CIRM tells us to look for the report, originally scheduled for January, to appear later this month.

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