Human Exceptionalism

More Trouble in Proposition 71 Land

I have this theory, which as I have said previously, isn’t even that–at best a notion or a wisp of a thought–that anyone seriously involved with human cloning will have it turn to dust in his or her hands. And we’ve seen the Wu-suk Hwang debacle, the problems of credibility over at Advanced Cell Technology, and problems at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and its inability to keep top management. Well, now there appears to be another scandal over at CIRM, as reported in an opinion column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Undue Influence at the Stem Cell Institute,” by Jesse Reynolds, who works for the liberal anti-cloning organization Center for Genetics and the Society. Reynolds writes:

Last week was a busy one for stem cell research. But amid the coverage of major technical advances, an all-too-predictable scandal erupted in California’s stem cell program. The details reveal improper and potentially illegal influence on the allocation of public funds by a board member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state body created to expend the $3 billion voters agreed to borrow and invest in research under Proposition 71.

The action was, in part, a symptom of the board’s structure. Proposition 71, which created CIRM in 2004, requires that a majority of board members be representatives of the very institutions waiting in line to receive grants.

Yes, we opponents warned the media about the potential for real ethical problems in the structuring of the CIRM–and they wrote about it too–after the campaign! Before that, they were too obsessed with pro lifers and giddy at the chance to “stick it to Bush” (which, as I have said Proposition 71 didn’t do; it stuck it to California) to do their jobs for the people of California.

Reynolds continues:

The scandal began when CIRM gave initial approval for a $638,000 grant to a researcher at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla. But a subsequent review by the agency’s staff found that the researcher is not qualified to receive CIRM funds because he’s not a full-time faculty member.

Before this was to be announced, John Reed, who is both a CIRM board member and the president of Burnham, sent a strongly worded seven-page letter to CIRM staff, emphasizing the “potentially damaging consequences” and “dangerous precedent” of a grant denial. Reed wasn’t merely assisting by clarifying a few details. To assess the grant’s eligibility, CIRM staff had been in communication for months with their counterparts at Burnham. When a board member, who is also president of one of the top grant-receiving institutions, writes this sort of letter, he’s sending a strong message.

That message is that it is chow time, boys! Come and git it!
CIRM Board Chairman Robert Klein also got his hands dirty, according to Reynolds:

Before lobbying CIRM staff, Reed asked for an opinion from Klein, who recommended that he write the letter. While Reed claims that he didn’t fully understand the prohibition on board members’ interference, Klein can’t assert ignorance. Although he now says that he’s “learned something,” Klein was Proposition 71’s primary author – not to mention the leader of the campaign to win voter approval.
This is part of a distinct pattern by Klein, who repeatedly chooses heavy-handed tactics and misleading statements over transparency and accountability. He routinely dismisses public process, and seems reluctant to assume the ethical obligations of a public official.

The science climate has changed since the passage of Proposition 71 and its structural problems continue. In light of the new science breakthroughs and the continuing questionable decision making, perhaps it’s time not to borrow billions of dollars for human cloning research in a state once again drowning in red ink.

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