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Better oversight could cure doubts of stem cell project

Proposition 71 gave the leadership of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine almost unassailable control of its $3 billion in funding. It's time for that to change.

February 01, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

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.

"Since 2006, we've gone from a portfolio of 16 grants to more than 320," says the program's vice president for operations, John Robson, who told me last week that the staff numbers 43 today.

"Our oversight responsibilities are increasing at the same time we're trying to support new research," he says. "We're going to bump up against this 50-person cap." He says it's imperative to augment the program's current complement of 21 science officers, who are MDs and PhDs qualified to ride herd on the program's grant and loan recipients.

But raising the cap to accommodate the extra staffers requires approval by the state Legislature, which the stem cell program has always treated as an enemy. This is what Shakespeare described in Hamlet as being “hoist on [one’s] own petard." (A petard was an explosive mine of the era.)

The good news for taxpayers is that the program's request for more staff could open the door for our elected representatives to finally insist on some jurisdiction over the spending of our $3 billion -- $6 billion including interest on the state bonds with which the money is raised. The key questions are these: Is it being spent appropriately, and is it being spent without conflicts of interest? On both issues, there's reason for doubt. Unfortunately, the program has managed to fend off every effort by elected officials to weigh in.

Here's some background.

The stem cell program -- the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, to use its formal designation -- was launched in response to President George W. Bush's Luddite war on embryonic stem cell research. Proposition 71 was the creation of Robert Klein, a Palo Alto businessman whose son suffered from juvenile diabetes, a disease stem cell researchers were targeting.

Prop. 71, which Klein drafted, aimed to turn the state into a stem cell research mecca. But the initiative was also a model of legalistic micromanaging. It barred state legislators from making any change to the program for three years, and then only on a 70% vote of both houses. It specified that the program's board would have 29 members and dictated how the seats were to be apportioned among interest groups. Klein ended up as its chairman.

The 50-employee limit was trumpeted by Proposition 71's supporters as proof that the program would be lean and mean, with almost all the money going to science. You might think they must have known from the start that managing a $3-billion scientific research program would require a larger staff, but then that would make them look cynical, and who wants to do that?

Klein and CIRM have always responded with indignation to any legislative effort to exert oversight over the program. When then-state Sen. Sheila Kuehl proposed a bill in 2008 ensuring that Californians receive affordable access to treatments arising from CIRM-funded research, she was attacked by Americans for Cures Foundation, a lobbying group closely connected to Klein. The group boorishly smeared her as being "ignorant," "mindless" or "playing dumb in a craven attempt to get Republican votes to back her legacy as defender of the poor." Just so you know, while she served in the Senate, Kuehl was one of its outstanding progressive Democrats and a national leader on healthcare reform.

The lobbying group presently apologized, and Klein resigned as its president. But it still operates out of his office suite in Palo Alto.

Last year, when the Little Hoover Commission -- the state panel devoted to keeping state agencies accountable -- recommended changes in the way CIRM governs itself and in its relationship with elected state officials, CIRM blasted it with both barrels.

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