Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
You’ve got to hand it to those risk-addicted Californians: Saddled with a debt running into the tens of billions of dollars, they don’t slice up their credit cards and pinch pennies.
They borrow even more money to invest in their future.
That’s what happened when California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 71, authorizing the state to sell up to $3 billion in bonds to pay for human embryonic stem cell research. Californians are betting it will spawn a stem cell industry built around potential treatments for Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and more.
In Wisconsin, the initial reaction to Proposition 71 was that it’s bad news for the Badger state’s stem cell research efforts. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor James Thomson and his team pioneered the "Stem Cells or Bust" trail for California and the rest of the world, but the fear is they will now be lured away by the promise of big bucks on the West Coast.
Proposition 71 may provide the wake-up call needed for policymakers in Wisconsin, as well as Washington, D.C.
California’s stem cell vote reinforced what public-opinion polls have been saying for years: Most Americans support such research and don’t equate using donated, surplus embryos from fertility clinics with aborting a fetus. The chief opposition in California didn’t come from those who argued against human embryonic stem cell research on moral grounds, but from people who said the state was crazy to borrow more money when it’s already deeply in debt.
California has joined the list of states that protect the right of stem cell researchers to do what they do best – research. Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts have put similar protections in place. Wisconsin needs to join those states and repudiate efforts to ban stem cell research, which would have a chilling effect on many unrelated forms of research. If you want to look at states with booming economies, look first to those states with robust academic R&D environments.
President George W. Bush and Congress should think long and hard about abdicating federal research responsibilities to a state, even one as big as California. Since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, academic research in the United States has been a competitive, merit-based enterprise.
Federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, for example, have gone to universities best equipped to do the job. It created a truly national research program – and accelerated the creation of private spin-off companies. Proposition 71 could undermine that system in favor of a state-by-state approach, in which dollars matter more than scientific integrity.
California’s stem cell dollars won’t rain from the clouds overnight. Bonds must be sold on a market that may be skeptical about medium- and long-term returns. An oversight program must be created to manage California’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Leaders of the institute must take great care not to finance every stem-cell plan that comes down the pike, because some are likely to be high-tech snake oil.
On balance, however, Proposition 71 puts pressure on the White House and the Capitol in Madison. If California voters can wager $3 billion ($6 billion, counting debt service) on technology they didn’t invent, policymakers in Wisconsin should find a way to help our own homegrown industry. Either that, or stand out of the way.
Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. This column originally appeared at Wisopinion.com, a media partner of Small Business Times.
November 26, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI