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How Far. How Fast. How Sad.

Mar
18
2005

How is it that stem cell research, an issue considered important by many – almost 60 percent – of California’s voters, has become so bogged down in political bickering?
Writing yesterday in a post called “A Litany of Loss,” reporter David Jenson outlined the current sad state of affairs. That was followed up today by an editorial in the Sacramento Bee calling for the California Regenerative Medicine Institute – the agency charged with issuing $3 billion in state bonds over the next 10 years – to clean up its act.


Jensen’s California Stem Cell Report, has a very nice round up and he makes some good points about the political losses the committee has inflicted upon itself. Sad to say, this hasn’t been a long time coming. Anyone with an understanding of how clubby, cozy Silicon Valley likes to do business could see the brewing culture clash between Sacramento lawmakers and business guys. And make no mistake, the stem cell initiative, which has been incorrectly branded outside the state with the Hollywood moniker, is a Silicon Valley product. The valley’s “friends and family” culture created this measure, funded it and will profit from it. The Institute’s failure to clean up questions about potential conflicts – between initiative backers and researchers, between researchers and the companies they may start and between Institute board members and the companies that might be created to take advantage of the medical discoveries that come from the Institute’s work – are deep and need to be addressed. The “who me?” approach isn’t working here and it’s only digging a deeper hole for everyone involved.
In November, Sen. Deborah Ortiz called for the agency to police itself. It’s leadership dragged its heels. It got its money. We voters were left to take our chances. Now, as Jensen points out, there’s big trouble:

It is one thing to irritate the sometimes toothless watch dog groups. It is another to antagonize heavyweight lawmakers.
CIRM now must focus much of its energy in rebuilding support in the Capitol. It will need to do everything possible to prevent a constitutional amendment from being placed on the ballot to tighten controls over the agency. The last thing the agency needs is a statewide election contest over matters that should have been dealt with more skillfully. The sooner the issue is put to rest the better.

Don’t hold your breath. Some of what’s going on here is a failure to understand the difference between private and public funding, a classic mistake made by business folks trying to work the political system and a profound weakness for that sometimes arrogant crowd known as Progressive libertarians. They want government to run like a business: Effeciently and with smart folks like them in charge. But there are reasons — lots of good ones — that we have oversight and open meetings. Progressive libertarians have the best of intentions but they confuse politics with policy, public relations with marketing.
Politics, which most Progressive libertarians think of as a corrupt enterprise, beneath their intelligence and not a worthy outlet for their skills, is seen as corrupt by definition. It is therefore unimportant and can be dismissed. After all, these are good people doing the right thing; we can trust them to do good work. They prefer to think of policy – the more noble act of creating worthwhile endeavors for people to follow – as their true calling. When their deeds are done, they’ll call us to admire the effect. The nobleness of their purpose overides any need to satisfy critics; once the task is complete, they will be silenced by the wonder of it all.
That’s an exaggeration. But not much of one. In the real world – where $3 billion in tax payer dollars is at stake — the two live cheek by jow and neglecting politics for policy is no different from sticking your head in the sand. Embracing a cause as high-minded as stem cell research is indeed a noble effort. Reaping profits from that effort may, in fact, just be a happy accident. But given the Institute’s current behavior, it’s unlikely that the benevolent light that was shining on the measure is going to retain its glow. The Insitute had political capital to spare as recently as a month ago. It squandered it. And now it’s going to have to reach deep to head off another ballot iniative or work fast, quick and hard to quiet the cynics and restore its good name and credibility.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:46 PM | Permalink

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