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Cellular Politics

Jul
23
2004

This week’s eWeek column is about Prop. 71, the California initiative to encourage stem cell research in the state’s universities and medical centers.
For better or worse, it’s going to focus national debate on this contentious issue, mostly because of the Reagan family’s involvement. The family’s interest in encouraging stem cell research puts a face on the potential for cures and treatment and could turn into another social issue defeat for the Bush administration. Reagan’s death and his son’s clear eulogy and the comments he’s made since are pushing back – hard – against the president’s decision to limit funding for stem cells research. Stem cells could be like gay marriage: Big push by the party’s conservatives but strong sentiment that the party is over-reacting by its moderates. End result: Tie.


The Reagans might keep California’s more conservative Republicans from successfully stirring up anti-abortion sentiment which has – sadly – surrounded debate on the stem cell issue. But it’s only mid-July. The measure’s backers, with their faith in science and their firm believe that change and progress are necessarily good, don’t have a lot of patience with the anti-abortion talk but they’re going to have to counter it. So there may be more than one political lesson to go around here on more than one side.
Complicating things: Prop. 71 is something of a jobs measure. That’s one guise under which it’s being sold. The $3 billion it hopes to raise will be a shot in the arm no matter how you count it, particularly if the big research center is located near any of the three San Francisco Bay Area universities: Cal/Berkeley, UC/San Francisco or, Stanford. If this weren’t California, with its distrust of government, the funding and development called for in Prop. 71 would be a public works project, pure and simple. That might sound like a successful sales pitch, but it’s also an argument that’s easily countered: Why do wealthy companies backed by (measure supporters and funders) well-heeled firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers need help from the state? Particularly for something so controversial? And aren’t they getting as much as their giving? This isn’t that different from the argument heard in San Francisco when biotech comes up in conversation. Why should the city give away tax breaks? And what about all the side-effects: the ”grey goo” nightmare of nanotechnology and cloning? For now, let’s just say that there’s enough junk science going around to float an armada of ballot initiatives – and to stop them cold.
Well, think about this. The number of patents being taken out by U.S. researchers is falling behind other nations. No one reading this site needs to be told that we are living – thriving – in an age of science or that much of the science and innovationg that made Silicon Valley possible was seeded (DARPA, the space program) by federal government funding. This country has cut back severely on the funds it makes available for research. One consequence of not spending as much? Less work. Oh, and the number of kids headed into science and tech jobs is falling. That’s not a coincidence and, yes indeed, it’s one that worries the valley.
Prop. 71 isn’t going to redo that balance. But it’s clearly – here I go again, the Progressive Libertarian attempt – to redress it. This is the movement at its best: finding solutions to difficult and expensive dilemmas, looking to the future, repairing government bone-headedness and generally speaking above the heads of politicians to look at complex policy problems and writing big fat checks to get things moving.
Prop. 71 has raised a lot of money to buy a lot of TV and other aids but passage of this measure isn’t going to be easy. But it may well be – on a number of fronts – more than worth it. Watch how the valley – how the state – reacts here. In combination with Controller Steve Westly’s open primary proposal and Steve Poizner’s candidacy for the state Assembly, the firm political outlines of this movement might becoming into clearer focus.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:06 AM | Permalink

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