STEM CELL RESEARCH: Members of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine's governing board have made clear that they see changes in federal policy as good news, but not as something that should slow down their funding or change their $3-billion plans. Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/DRA_SCHWARTZ
BURLINGAME, Calif.—California provides more funding for stem cell research than the other 49 states combined. So what does President Obama's executive order lifting the restrictions financing and structure of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state's cash-strapped stem cell agency?
At recent meetings, the members of CIRM's governing board have made clear that they see changes in federal policy as good news, but not as something that should slow down their funding or change their plans. "This is what the voters of California wish their dollars to go for," said Sherry Lansing, a former studio executive who is a leading voice on the board, during a meeting here earlier this year. "That has been something they have made quite clear, and we have a mission that we have to complete no matter what happens at the federal level." During the same discussion, Phil Pizzo, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, warned that whatever the National Institutes of Health ultimately funds in stem cell research, "it's not going to be with this intense focus on stem cell biology…. It won't be the depth that we are able to do."
The truth is that there is no easy way to make major changes at CIRM, or its governing board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC). Nothing—not legal challenges, not the state government's insolvency, and certainly not any newly available federal funding—can stop this state from funding stem cell research. In recent weeks, CIRM officials have said that proposed draft NIH guidelines on stem cell research are largely consistent with CIRM standards and would require only a minor revision of state regulations on what couples are told before donating their excess embryos to research. The guidelines’ specific prohibitions on some research funded by CIRM demonstrates the continuing need for the independent state agency, officials say.
That independence is by design. The institute and board were created in November 2004 by a ballot initiative—a method of democratic lawmaking that often produces inflexible legislation. Most crucially, California voters, in approving the initiative known as Proposition 71, authorized $3 billion in general obligation bonds to fund research. To siphon that money for other purposes, or to change the agency or board in any significant way would require either another vote of the people, approval of 70 percent of the state legislature—or both. As a practical matter, those hurdles are impossibly high.
Robert Klein, the Palo Alto developer who wrote the initiative and now chairs the ICOC board, has argued that this inflexibility serves as an essential bulwark against interference by politicians and interest groups who oppose the controversial research or would rather divert state funds to other priorities.
And as a defense against such meddling, Klein's strategy has worked. Despite legal challenges that slowed the beginning of funding, some $500 million in bonds have been sold and CIRM has approved $761 million in grants to facilities, training and research.