Monday, January 19, 2009

A California Stem Cell Question: Millions for Science vs. Cuts in Medical Help for the Poor

As California's public universities are turning away students and state cash is being cut for projects ranging from research labs to affordable housing, the California stem cell agency is on track to give away $66 million later this month.

The awards will come following CIRM's handout of more than $19 million last month.

No one – except for those congenitally opposed to hESC work -- is contending that all these millions are going to unworthy scientists or to dubious research. But the CIRM giveaways stand in marked contrast to what is happening to the rest of the state in the light of its $40 billion budget crisis.

If CIRM were, say, part of the state Department of Health, chances are good that it would not be able to spend taxpayer money so freely.

The disparity raises major public policy issues about the use of ballot initiatives to promote and protect various causes. Should the elderly and poor see their much-needed assistance and medical care cut while cash flows unimpeded, in this case, to researchers, some of whom are already exceedingly well funded?

A ballot initiative, Prop. 71, is just what created the $3 billion stem cell effort in 2004 – not carefully crafted legislation hammered out over months with all parties having their say in public. The measure was drafted in secret by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein (with the help of a couple of others he rarely acknowledges) and placed on the ballot with a signature-gathering effort that probably cost $1 to $2 million. (That is the most common way of placing an initiative on the ballot in California – hiring firms that specialize in such efforts and paying them on a per signature basis.)

Voters did speak, approving Prop. 71 with a 59 percent vote. However, the measure faced only the most feeble opposition. The groups concerned about ethical issues involving hESC were largely focused instead on re-electing George Bush as president.

The upshot is that the Golden State can do little now to enact even the most minor needed changes in the Prop. 71. It locked into state law and the state Constitution true minutia, such as specifying that CIRM Chairman Klein is in charge of putting out the annual report. Prop. 71 enacted super-majority quorum requirements that hamper the agency in conducting its official business and capped its staff size at a ludicrously low 50 persons to run a $3 billion program. And it created a board of directors dominated by the very enterprises that benefit the most from CIRM largess.

Klein, in order to insure that he and the agency would not have to heed the wishes of the governor or other elected officials, wrote into Prop. 71 an unprecedented, constitutional requirement for a 70 percent vote of the legislature to change the law, plus the signature of the governor. That makes it virtually politically impossible to make alterations in the measure. By contrast, even passing a budget for the state of California or raising taxes requires only a two-thirds vote. While less than that for changes in CIRM, the two-thirds requirement is now barring a solution to the state's disastrous financial problems.

All of that is a backdrop to the upcoming CIRM directors meeting Jan. 29 in Burlingame, Ca. In addition to giving away the big bucks, an overdue review of its financial condition is on the agenda. So far, however, no financial documents are posted on the CIRM web site. The subject came up last month repeatedly at the directors meeting in Irvine. Klein, however, shied away from discussing specifics.

But here are the basics: CIRM depends on state bonds for cash. The money flows directly to the agency. The governor and the legislature cannot touch it. But the state has stopped issuing bonds because of its precarious condition. CIRM says that so far it has plenty of cash. But it has awarded more than $600 million in multi-year grants, which need regular payments. One contingency Klein promises to discuss is the private placement of bonds. One would think those would have limited appeal when not even the state of California can find a market for its bonds.

Private placements, moreover, are not likely to be necessary. If California cannot get its financial act together in the next month or two, it will face problems of a magnitude that will dwarf such concerns as stem cell research. That pressure seems certain to force the state's public servants to cobble together a solution before CIRM runs aground financially. Nonetheless contingency plans are always good.

The grants scheduled to be awarded include $18 million to support up to 10 awards for three years "to augment the ranks of laboratory personnel trained in the state-of-the-art techniques required by stem cell research labs." Certainly a worthy endeavor while the state's educational institutions are being whipsawed financially.

The second round involves $48 million in training grants for young scientists, including stipends of up to $77,000 for three years, including research and travel, tuition and health insurance in some cases. Another worthy endeavor, an investment in the future. It is a remake of the first-ever grants awarded by CIRM in September 2005. The agency didn't have the money then to fund the grants immediately, but the cash ultimately came through and helped make the state attractive to new, young talent.

If you have thoughts on any of these issues, you can comment below by clicking on the word "comment" or you can write CIRM directly via its web site and ask to have your comments made part of the public comment allowed at each CIRM board meeting.

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