The California Stem Cell Boondoggle

Silicon Valley millionaire Bob Klein launched a ballot drive to create a $3-billion state fund for stem-cell research in 2004. The 65-year old entrepreneur was inspired to find money for stem cell research after his son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. He originally pitched the campaign as a way to take politics out of science and focus on finding cures for diseases. His drive pulled out all the emotional stops as they even showed former big screen actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed in a wheelchair, struggling for breath and imploring California voters to “stand up for those who can’t.”

Unfortunately California’s stem cell initiative is nothing more than a boondoggle that has cost the tax payers of California enormous sums of money. Now Klein wants to ask the voters for another $3 billion in a bond measure on the 2014 ballot to keep the program going.

Next month, Klein’s six-year term as chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine expires. The institute has funded research that has published a large quantity of scientific papers but no marketable therapies. In fact most stem cell scientists say that such therapies for maladies such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and spinal cord damage promised during the campaign remain years, if not decades, away.

California voters supposedly approved the agency as a rebuke to President George W. Bush’s ban on federal funding for research that did not use approved embryonic stem cell lines. Bush made it clear that he imposed the ban because the process of obtaining the stem cells involves the destruction of human embryos. Supporters of the research accused the Bush administration of allowing politics to trump science. However, morality is not politics, and this accusation has always rung quite hollow.

Nevertheless, California’s stem cell agency quickly found itself mired in another form of politics: legislators and government watchdogs criticized the program for paying its president more than twice the governor’s salary. It also distributed nearly $1 billion to universities with representatives on its board of directors and greatly oversold the promise of stem cell cures.

John Simpson of the Santa Monica based Consumer Watchdog said, “Unfortunately, the campaign fell into sound bites and most people voted for it with the expectation that there were going to be stem cell cures in a year, that Superman would walk again. Also, since the Obama administration has restored federal support for embryo-destructive stem cell research, a separate state program is simply necessary, and will probably attract little voter support.

Klein shrugs off the criticism and political doubts, and is supremely confident that there will be “plenty of evidence” to present to voters by the time they are asked to approve more money. “I passionately believe there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially,” Klein said during an interview in the gleaming new stem cell research building at his alma mater, Stanford University. Stanford was new stem cell center was partially funded by a $43-million grant from the state stem cell program.

Of the roughly $1.1 billion committed from the agency’s budget so far, Stanford has received more than any other institution (~ $176 million). UCLA is second with $135 million, and UC San Francisco is third with $111 million. All three schools have direct representation on the agency’s board; the deans of their medical schools are voting members. All in all, $930 million has gone to institutions with faculty or administrators on the board.

Another big chunk of the money, roughly $270 million, went to the construction of new labs — built without federal funds so research can’t be cut off if a new administration in Washington once again turns off federal support for work using stem cells. “These buildings represent academic and nonprofit safe harbors where that research can be protected and proceed despite radical changes in Washington,” Klein said.

Last year, the Little Hoover Commission, a state panel devoted to accountability and transparency, suggested reducing the number of seats on the 29-member board, in part, so the tremendous amount of money going to board members’ institutions wouldn’t look so awkward. “Criticism that CIRM’s governing board remains an insider’s club undermines the legitimacy of the agency,” the commission’s June 2009 report stated. However, other critics have gone further. “When you’re talking about spending $1.1 billion dollars, there’s absolutely no excuse for people making the decision to give themselves the money,” said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. While board members recuse themselves from voting on grants where they have a direct conflict, the mere presence of so many conflicted members is a concern, Fellmeth said. “There is a quid pro quo atmosphere that develops, because you defer to each other.”

Another sore point has been the high salaries paid to top administrators, who handle a staff of about 50. In 2009, President Alan Trounson, a renowned stem cell scientist from Australia, was paid $490,000, the second highest salary in state government outside the university system, records show. This is more than twice the salary of the governor of California and the director of the NIH. California taxpayers are paying for high executive salaries and special favors to their already cash-bloated schools. They need to rise up and say no the use of their hard-earned tax dollars to murder unborn children who are too young and small to fight back.