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Michael Hiltzik: Of stem cells and administrative arrogance

February 1, 2010 |  3:00 am

It was always predictable that the voter initiative that created the California stem cell program, Proposition 71 of 2004, would lead it into something of a cul-de-sac. As my column for Monday reports, the initiative was too specific about how the program would be managed and how it would spend its money -- embryonic stem cell research was placed front and center at a time when that line of research was so, well, embryonic that no one could tell how fecund it might be.

Proposition 71 is an excellent illustration of how the state's initiative process can lead to doing the wrong thing with the right intentions. Now that many other research vectors are proving more interesting, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is at a crossroads, only five years after it was launched. Its latest major round of grants included some that had little to do with embryonic stem cells; it's moving away from basic science grants toward lending to commercial firms; its 10-year sunset deadline is fast approaching, with no one sure whether its lifespan should or can be extended; and real and potential conflicts of interest involving its board members and grant applicants continue to exist.

And, of course, its original raison d'etre, the Luddite science politics of the George W. Bush administration, no longer exists at all.

Now, even Proposition 71 itself is in the program's way. The irony there, of course, is that Proposition 71 was personally drafted by the program's Czar, Robert Klein, who has insisted all along that it's sacrosanct. Now that the program wants to change one provision of the initiative, there's no excuse for the legislature failing to open the entire program to scrutiny. CIRM's argument that any tampering with Proposition 71 would have a devastating impact on the course of stem cell research in California has been exposed as self-serving. Taking this important program out of the hands of self-interested overseers can only help California science.

The column begins below.

It’s never pretty to see people get blown up by their own bombs. But it sure can be educational.

A case in point is the leadership of the California stem cell program, which pushed through Proposition 71 in 2004 to create the program, entrenched itself in almost unassailable control of its $3 billion in funding, and has self-righteously fought every attempt to improve public oversight over its disbursement of what is, after all, the people’s money.

That includes any attempt to amend the original language of Proposition 71, which they regard as Holy Writ.

Here’s the rub. They now assert that one provision written into Proposition 71 has become a big problem for them. This is the rule that limits the program to a maximum of 50 employees.
That’s not sufficient to manage a program that has already committed more than $1 billion to researchers, they say. 

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik