Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Skin in California’s Stem Cell Game

The California stem cell agency’s road map to its financial future makes a big, $200 million assumption.

The amount would be the agency’s skin in the game for a new, public-private partnership to continue with the agency’s work after 2017, when its cash basically runs out.

The $200 million figure is contained in the assumptions for development of the proposed partnership, which is now in the very early stages of being crafted by a Marin County consultant, James Gollub. He was told that whatever he comes up with can assume a onetime, $50 million to $200 million public contribution.

The sixty-four-dollar question – to use a term from the 1940s -- is how to raise that sort of cash. Consider two unappetizing possibilities. The 29 members of the agency’s governing board could go to Sacramento and ask lawmakers and the governor to give them the money, a prospect that most of them would not relish. Such a move would open the door to tinkering or more with the agency’s structure and operations.  Or the board could seek more bond financing via a statewide election, requiring an electoral campaign that would cost many millions to mount. In both cases, there is no guarantee that funds would be forthcoming. Money is still tight in California government, and voters may not fancy spending more on stem cell research, especially if the agency has not delivered on the promises of the 2004 ballot campaign that created the $3 billion program.

A third possibility, however, exists, but it also could be difficult considering pressures to spend all that the agency has. The board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has about $600 million in uncommitted cash. It could take $200 million off the table and reserve it as seed money for whatever future plans would involve. Or the board could simply roll back commitments it has made for lower priority grant rounds – ones that have not yet been initiated. Some are in concept stages, and others have not yet been posted as RFAs.

Scrimping on existing efforts is not going to suit the condition of all board members. The question of priorities on spending came up last month in connection with the agency’s generous, $69 million researcher recruitment effort that benefits many institutions represented on the agency’s board. Jeff Sheehy, who is a patient advocate member of the board but also a communications manager at UC San Francisco, and others bridled at adding more money to the recruitment program. Sheehy cited scarcity of funds and said it was a “distraction” from more important efforts. His view, however, did not prevail.

Today the board is scheduled to act on a grant round that is budgeted for $70 million. However, grant reviewers have approved grants totaling only $37 million. Board members, if they wish, could indicate that the surplus $33 million be designated as a down payment on the future of the agency – an organization in which they take great pride.

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