More Accountability Needed in California’s Stem Cell Institute

Published on

KPCC 89.3 FM (Pasadena, CA)

The following commentary by FTCR president Jamie Court was broadcast on Monday, July 11, 2005 on KPCC 89.3 FM (Pasadena, CA). Click here to listen to listen to the commentary on the KPCC website.
Last November we Californians passed Proposition 71 — which authorizes three billion dollars in bonds for stem cell research.

But Prop. 71 left a legal opening for anti-stem cell groups. It created an institute that is not accountable to any state official. The anti-stem cell forces sued, saying this violates the California constitution’s ban on taxpayer support for an agency not under state management and control. So far, the legal challenges have blocked the issuance of the bonds.

The stem cell institute’s board could have fixed this problem by submitting to the same conflict of interest standards and open meeting requirements as other state boards. But the board chose to exempt itself from these rules, under a provision of Prop. 71. That suggests that it doesn’t want the rest of us watching when it decides who gets massive taxpayer-funded research grants.

Tomorrow the institute’s oversight panel is set to vote on whether to take some small steps in the right direction. One of those would be to require the scientists who will recommend stem cell grants to disclose financial conflicts of interest. But that’s just not enough, since that information would not be shared with the general public.

The people in charge of the institute seem unable to fathom that anyone could believe in the research, but not want to give a blank check to the biotech industry to carry it out.

The harsh truth is that the stem cell institute is a captive of the biotech industry and of disease advocates in search of a cure.

Of the 29 members on the oversight committee, at least ten hold board positions with, or own stock in, pharmaceutical and biotech firms that could benefit from the new technology. On any other state board or commission, the members would be forced to divest or resign.

Like many Californians, I believe in stem cell research. But I also believe in establishing ethical safeguards and accountability before spending six billion dollars in taxpayer dollars — the total cost when bond financing is considered.

The way to move on is for the institute to voluntarily submit to the same democratic rules and good government laws as other state boards. And the public should be guaranteed some control over the fruits of its research. Rules should be adopted to ensure that the state general fund owns at least fifty percent of all patents and medical technologies developed.

When it comes to stem cell research, America is watching us. California needs to get it right.

Consumer Watchdog
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