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Donor Stops Big Payment to Stanford

Health: Angered by the Bush policy on stem cell research, technology mogul Jim Clark withholds $60 million of $150 million he pledged for biomedical studies.

September 01, 2001|CHARLES ORNSTEIN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Wealthy technology guru Jim Clark has stopped payment on $60 million of a $150-million pledge to Stanford University for biomedical science, citing anger over President Bush's restrictions on stem cell research.

The decision by Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon and myCFO, is highly unusual in higher education philanthropy. In recent years, donors have pulled gifts out of anger with recipient universities. Some have canceled donations when their investments have gone sour.

Clark cited neither reason. His decision has nothing to do with Stanford, he said, and has everything to do with the new White House policies. Clark also said he was dismayed by attempts in Congress to criminalize research into the possibility of cloning human cells as a treatment for illness.

"I believe our country risks being thrown into a dark age of medical research," he wrote in an opinion column for the New York Times announcing his decision. "This legislative action will cause the United States to miss a revolution in biology. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom a new industry will be born."

Clark did not want to comment beyond the statement, a spokesman said. His 1999 pledge was the largest in Stanford's history and the fifth-largest to any American university at the time.

Paul Berg, an emeritus professor at Stanford and winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry, said he didn't know if Clark's action would prompt a "wavelet or a tidal wave" of others retracting donations.

Clark is a media-savvy executive who knew that his action would elicit more reaction than simply a letter expressing his concerns about the research limitations, Berg said. He expressed hope that Clark would eventually pay the balance of his pledge.

"He chose a venue that he knew would have the earmarks of a bombshell, and he used that strategy to get attention to what he wanted to say," Berg said.

"This isn't a naive neophyte in this area," he added. "[Clark] knows the tricks of the trade."

At the same time, Stanford is a "moneymaking machine," raising $580 million last year, Berg said.

Indeed, Stanford President John Hennessy said Clark's action will not thwart construction of the James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, slated to open in 2003. The center is part of a research initiative called Bio-X, which combines resources from biosciences, physical sciences and engineering.

Clark, an associate engineering professor at Stanford before becoming an entrepreneur, first suggested to university officials last week that he wanted to suspend $90 million of his pledge, Hennessy said. After talking to Hennessy, he reduced that figure to $60 million.

"[Clark] worked with us to ensure that the building would be able to go ahead," Hennessy said. "He was very concerned about not having a really draconian impact on Stanford."

The move drew criticism from some advocates of stem cell research, while others said they thought it would have little impact.

"It does seem like he's penalizing the wrong people for a poor or limited policy," said Dr. Larry Goldstein, a cell biologist and stem cell researcher at UC San Diego. "If Mr. Clark really wanted to make an impact here, he'd take that $60 million to build a stem cell derivation and research center. He'd do everything he can to foster Stanford's efforts to build research in this area, not hamper them."

A White House spokesman said Clark's move would not affect Bush's decision, and at least some advocates of stem cell research agreed.

Dr. David Korn, a senior vice president at the Assn. of American Medical Colleges said, "I can't conceive that this kind of an action would have any impact on the president nor the Congress nor anybody else. I just don't understand it."

The association has argued against federal restrictions on stem cell research. Korn is also a former dean of Stanford's medical school.

At the White House, spokesman Ken Lisaius said Bush had no plans to change his mind. "President Bush has developed a solution that allows scientists to explore the potential of stem cell research without compromising his core principle that federal funding should not sanction or encourage the destruction of human embryos," he said.

Under Bush's policy, scientists will be allowed to use federal money for research using only 64 lines of existing stem cells. Critics say that many of those 64 lines may be unusable and that the prohibition on using new groups of stem cells in federally funded work will greatly hamper research.

Stem cell lines are groups of cells derived from human embryos. They are taken at an early stage when the cells have made few or no steps toward becoming one type of tissue or another.

Researchers hope that by harnessing the ability of stem cells to transform themselves, they can develop therapies for diseases and injuries--growing new cells to fix injured spinal cords, for example, or developing ways to treat diabetes.

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