Friday, November 05, 2004

California to the Rescue

New York Times

California to the Rescue

Published: November 5, 2004

When California voters enacted a lavishly financed stem cell program on Tuesday, they performed a valuable service that should help keep this nation in the forefront of one of the most promising areas of biomedical research. It was especially important given the big role that religious conservatives, who are strongly opposed to embryonic stem cell research, played in re-electing President Bush. There seems to be little chance that Mr. Bush will retreat from his limits on federal support for such research, and a Congress that has shifted rightward may try, once again, to ban therapeutic cloning, the most promising area of embryonic stem cell research. Now that California has enshrined stem cell research and therapeutic cloning in its Constitution and state law, it may be the engine that keeps the nation moving.

The ballot measure won almost 60 percent of the vote, thanks in part to strong support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who agrees with many moderate Republicans that the research holds enormous potential for treating intractable diseases. California is now authorized to borrow up to $3 billion over a decade for research in the state's universities, nonprofit institutions and private companies. The money would be doled out at a rate that could reach $300 million a year. This is a staggering sum of money, 12 times as much as the federal government spent last year on embryonic stem cell research under the president's restrictive policies.

The new gusher of support is apt to tilt the playing field toward California in the race to attract top scientists and expand the biotechnology industry. California's universities are already plotting to lure top scientists from other states or even other nations with newly built laboratories and hefty research budgets. States that aspire to scientific preeminence may soon find themselves under pressure to spend to avoid losing top talent.

This is not the way any rational nation should organize its support of scientific research. Ideally, the National Institutes of Health, the government's top biomedical research agency, would award grants to the best scientists and research proposals wherever they might be. Only Mr. Bush's reluctance to support this research and his opposition to therapeutic cloning can justify a state-by-state approach.

Unfortunately, ballot measures are crude instruments for carrying out complex undertakings. The new program is largely insulated from legislative and gubernatorial oversight. That means the program's managers will need to take great care to prevent conflicts of interest, keep all proceedings as open as possible and ensure that the state receives a fair share of royalties and patent benefits. They must also make certain that they support high-quality work, no easy task when pouring money into a field that is still relatively small. The governing board, stacked with representatives of institutions that stand to benefit from the program, must ensure that its decisions are beyond reproach.