The stem cell initiative approved by California voters in November is already being questioned in major state and national newspapers, as well as in the business press. Many post-election media assessments echoed the concerns about conflicts of interest, inadequate patient protection, and irresponsible giveaways of public funds that were voiced during the campaign by the Center for Genetics and Society, the Pro-Choice Alliance Against Proposition 71, and other critics.
There is growing realization that a major public-interest effort will be needed if stem cell research in California, and in the other states now trying to compete with California's lavishly funded program, is to be conducted with public oversight, transparency, and accountability.
The Sacramento Bee reported on November 18 that Robert Klein, the initiative's originator and largest funder, has made contributions to three of the four state officials who are appointing the majority of the governing committee of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the body established to oversee the stem cell project. Klein is himself jockeying for the powerful chairmanship of CIRM's governing committee.
In a further effort to control the $3 billion in public funds, Klein has announced that he will set up a separate, privately funded organization to advise that committee on the "best practices" for doing its job.
Meanwhile, California state senator Deborah Ortiz, a staunch supporter of the initiative during the campaign, now says that she will author legislation to address some of its flaws. Although the text of the initiative says that its activities will not be bound by any "current or future state laws or regulations," Senator Ortiz says that she will try to protect the public's investment and strengthen protections for patients and egg providers.
Post-election media coverage
A November 8 "election wrap-up" in BioCentury, The Bernstein Report On BioBusiness was blunt about many
of the initiative's serious flaws. It attributed the initiative's passage largely to television advertising in which
"[s]upporters promised voters in highly emotional terms that stunning medical cures and vast commercial opportunities from stem cells are close at hand."
BioCentury provided a list of the campaign's major donors, many of them venture capitalists, who contributed nearly all of the $25-million campaign fund. Under the heading "Pluripotent Patronage," the on-line biotech business publication noted that "California's Proposition 71 appears to have minimal safeguards against self-interested decision making," and that "the final authority for decisions made by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will be in the hands of those who stand to benefit from the funding." The article predicted that CIRM "will be hard-pressed to live up to the two broad promises made during the campaign: that taxpayers will get a quick return on their investment and that cures will be coming soon."
Other media accounts made similar points. A November 26 article in The New York Times reported on concerns "that the $3 billion that state voters approved for the endeavor could become a bonanza for private profiteers," that the measure "contains inadequate safeguards to ensure public oversight of the financial allocations and guarantee public benefit from any medical breakthroughs," and that "the promise of stem cell studies has been oversold to the public."
A November 22 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle found various aspects of the appointments to the CIRM committee "worrisome." The Chronicle also drew attention to the initiative's "gray areas," including lack of clear protection for patients and for women who will be "tempted or enticed to participate in `egg harvesting' for research purposes," and concluded that the "entire project must…be open to as much public scrutiny as possible."
Post-election coverage of the stem cell initiative: