Monday, May 10, 2010

Parochial or Global? The California Research Spending Rule and Science

UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler (left) has triggered an interesting discussion on his blog centering on the question: “Does it matter where stem cell research happens.”

This is of considerable interest here in the Golden State, which has a rich, $3 billion stem cell research effort that it is basically limited to California. The reason for that is entirely political. It would have been folly to ask voters to approve the program, as they did in 2004, if the money were going to flow to Harvard, Great Britain and Singapore.

Enforcing and defining the limits on spending are not small issues. The California stem cell agency has written its rules in such a way that companies headquartered elsewhere and also with major operations elsewhere still can receive grants.

One example is the $3.7 million CIRM grant to Maine's Jackson Laboratory. The justification is that the money is largely being spent at the company's Sacramento facility. Out-of-state spending also nearly sank a $5.4 million grant to Evan Snyder at Sanford-Burnham.

However, stem cell research is global. A powerful argument can be made that funding should be global if the science is to avoid pursuing a pinched path of parochialism. Should poor or even average science be funded because it is peculiar to California? Of course, considerable differences do exist on just what is “good” science.

On his blog, Knoepfler cites the case of Advanced Cell Technology of Santa Monica, Ca., which moved its headquarters to California largely because of the passage of Prop. 71. The company, however, apparently has no significant research operations in California. All are in Massachusetts, where it was previously headquartered.

ACT has not received funds from CIRM. Has it sought any? CIRM won't say. The agency cloaks its applicants in secrecy, so it is nearly impossible to tell whether a specific company has applied for taxpayer funds. But one of ACT's researchers complained to the CIRM board about a negative decision on a grant application. The researcher said one of the reviewers had a conflict of interest, which CIRM denied.

Knoepfler and others commenting on his blog wrestle with some of the important issues of geography-based funding, which even extends to choices within California. The main argument, however, for maintenance of the ban on non-California grants is political. Support for CIRM would vanish if it were to send its billions to out-of-state researchers, regardless of the worthiness of their efforts.

(Editor's note: A very early version of this item did not contain the information about the ACT researcher's complaint about a conflict of interest.)


  1. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Could you please provide a link to or post the actual text of the CIRM policy on what makes a company eligible?

    Some of us would like to read it and see what it says.

    Thanks, Arno

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. I have posted an item and links. See Keeping the Cash in California.