Fund the Future

California wants you to pay for stem cell research


"What are we really after with this research?" asked David A. Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, during a stem cell research symposium last week. In a Power Point demonstration of the dangers involved in somatic cell nuclear transfer, Prentice raised a series of important points—from the exaggerated claims being made by stem cell research proponents to the difficulty of establishing and maintaining stem cell lines to the risk of tumor formation in pluripotent cells—before cutting to his highlight: a crudely Photoshopped picture of a baby wearing a quizzical expression, over the caption "GOOD GRIEF: I've been cloned!"

Thus do the champions of moral seriousness demonstrate their grave, solemn consideration of our age's defining medical question.

I don't mean to imply that the frivolousness was all on one side at the Willie L. Brown Jr. Institute's Stem Cell Research Symposium. Proponents of embryonic stem cell research—and by extension, of California's Proposition 71, which will float $3 billion in general obligation bonds to pay for that research—touted high-profile diabetics and celebrity Parkinson's sufferers with an abandon that would have shamed Jerry Lewis. The legendary former San Francisco mayor who organized the event set the tone in his opening address, when he dedicated the day to "Christopher Reeves [sic]". As far as I know, nobody channeled vice presidential candidate John Edwards' vision of John Kerry telling the late Superman actor, "Take up thy bed and walk," but then I missed one of the Q&A sessions.

This emotional manipulation has become familiar to anybody too slow to change the channel when stem cell research comes up for debate, but in California it's got a special immediacy. In November, voters will vote on a proposal that will, in true Golden State fashion, throw money the state doesn't have at a gamble that may have no payoff. Prop. 71 would establish a "California Institute for Regenerative Medicine" to fund and regulate stem cell research, establish a constitutional right to conduct this research, prohibit funding of reproductive cloning, and to pay for it all, float bonds that will, according to the state's own legislative analyst, cost taxpayers $6 billion over 30 years to repay.

Proponents of Prop. 71 cite the need to respond to President Bush's 2001 decision not to fund research on new embryonic stem cell lines and the tempting prospect of turning California into America's center of stem cell research. Opponents, a coalition of bad apples uniting the Thomist right with the Chicken Little left, have seized on the princely sums involved as a way to argue against the research itself.

In this case, however, the bad apples have stumbled onto a legitimate argument. Whatever you think of the arguments for embryonic stem cell research (and from my own amateur perspective they are overwhelming), Prop 71 does more than just regularize it or encourage investment from the private sector; it requires the state's residents to foot the bill. "So far, you haven't heard much from people who support embryonic stem cell research but oppose public funding of it," says Burt Margolin, former member of the California state assembly and president of The Margolin Group, Inc., "because this is the first time money's been involved in any state legislation related to this research."

But it's not the first time public funding has been the arena for the contest over embryonic stem cell research. Since Bush's 2001 decision, the stem cell debate has been argued almost entirely in meta-terms; politicians signal their positions to the anti-abortion and anti-science lobbies by pretending to be in favor of funding or defunding the research.

But even this signaling is not entirely straightforward. Opponents of funding research on embryonic stem cells generally claim to be "in favor of stem cell research"—just not research on embryos. Research on adult stem cells is uncontroversial, but, as Ron Bailey explained last year in Reason, adult research is much less likely to yield useful results than research on embryonic stem cells. To claim to be in favor of research, but not on embryonic research, is pettifoggery.

What may or may not be pettifoggery is the notion that public funding will decide the future of this science. Scientists argue that the battle over research funding is not at all symbolic, that without public funding these studies will dry up, leaving not only California but the entire United States lagging behind Singapore, Israel, South Korea and the United Kingdom in stem cell research. This, as proponents frequently point out, is basic research, the sort of thing the private sector does not readily support. Only when stem cell therapies have been demonstrated can we expect biotech companies, venture capitalists, and other for-profit entities to rush to the market.

For many, the prospect of anybody making a profit on this research is damning enough. In a characteristic anti-71 argument, Steve Milloy singles out prominent Prop 71 advocate Irving Weissman, whose company StemCells Inc. faces a depressed stock price and would almost certainly get a boost if the ballot initiative passed.

What Milloy doesn't highlight (though a stock analyst he cites does) is that the stock of that company, like that of many biotech plays, has already been affected—negatively—by government interference. Prop 71 proponents point not only to the Bush decision but to Congressional bills introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) that would have criminalized this type of research.

"In 2002 and 2003, when the Weldon bill was in the House of Representatives, Proposition 71 wasn't even a dream," says Robert Klein, chairman of the Yes On 71 Coalition. "The Brownback bill didn't involve public funding at all. The Bush administration has gotten Costa Rica to front a UN bill outlawing this research worldwide. It's initiatives like this that made our own congressional allies to tell us 'We can't hold this dike back forever. You need to get enough funding to scientists so they can show some results.' Historically, public funding has broadened public support."

That last comment is enough to cause baldness in any believer in a limited government, and the entire claim that private institutions will not fund long-term speculative research seems a hard sell to Californians, who witnessed a period of more than half a decade during which VC money fell from the trees onto countless Petopias, FogDogs and Kozmo.coms—companies that would make a pure stem cell play seem like a model of bowtied respectability by comparison.

"I can't address business irrationality," says Klein. "I can only point to 60 years of history at the National Institute of Health, which indicates that public funds are the only reliable source of funding for basic research."

Opponents of Proposition 71 point to their own coalition's breadth, which includes Catholic right-to-lifers, nurses' associations and some pro-choice women's groups. Inevitably, the resulting message is somewhat muddled. In a half-hour phone interview, Judy Norsigian, executive director of Boston-based Our Bodies Ourselves, spent about half the time badmouthing the Catholic Church, which in her opinion has screwed up the anti-71 sales pitch. Her own objections include Prop 71's use of public funds (which she thinks should be spent on more pressing public health needs); the proposition's language on royalty sharing, which she says doesn't promote "the common good;" the possibility that a Kerry win will free up Federal funding and obviate the need for a California bond issue; and most importantly the dangers posed to women who donate eggs for this research. (Like many opponents, Norsigian sees a future in which women are pressured into unhealthy hyperovulation and donation procedures without just compensation.)

Norsigian dismisses the criminalization threat raised by Robert Klein. "Brownback is a nut, everybody knows that," she says. "His bill was never going to go anywhere." Although her arguments have some coherence from a leftish point of view, they invariably come back to opposition to embryonic stem cell research itself, and a slippery-slope argument about human reproductive cloning. "We have to worry about the crazies," she says. "There are people out there right now trying to do reproductive cloning."

This is what makes it hard even for a staunch opponent of public funding of research to get on the anti-71 bandwagon. In the actual tussle of voting and electoral politics, a defeat for Proposition 71 won't be interpreted as a principled stance against costly bond issues in a financially troubled state. It will be seen as a vote against embryonic stem cell research. (For what it's worth, the most recent poll figures indicate plurality support for the measure.) In a slightly better world, no such proposition would be on the ballot, and voters in Californian would not have to worry about such things. But then, in a better world, Superman would walk again.

This is the kind of topsy-turvy logic public health pieties have left us with. You can't discuss a matter of science in any terminology other than that of public policy and taxpayer money. The future may or may not hold medical breakthroughs due to stem cell research. But it definitely will hold more scientists getting public funds and then complaining about the politicization of science, more demagoguery featuring unborn babies and celebrity patients, and more situations in which even reasonably thrifty and cautious citizens will have to say, "Well, it's only three billion dollars."