LA Times columnist's concerns over CIRM echo our own

Posted by Jesse Reynolds February 3, 2010
Biopolitical Times
Michael Hiltzik

One of the most prominent political commentators in the state has again taken on California's controversial stem cell research program. Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist at the Los Angeles Times, has critiqued the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine at least three times before. Weeks before voters approved Proposition 71, the initiative which created the CIRM, he suggested its promoters were overplaying the immediacy of cures and the resulting streams from profitable inventions while intentionally dodging the "process by which elected representatives decide whether, say, $3 billion in state debt capacity should all go to stem cell research or to a broader biomedical research program, or even to highway construction or schoolroom renovation instead."

Six months after its passage, Hiltzik rhetorically asked, "Did it have to live down to our expectations so quickly?" He pointed to the the agency's hostility toward the legislature, "overwrought reaction" to lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the initiative, and its dangerous haste.

And last year, he said the program was "rife with conflicts of interest," and called "for a fundamental rethinking of the stem cell program."

The occasion for his latest salvo was a remarkable exchange between CIRM leadership and a secondary committee established by Proposition 71. The closest thing to oversight of CIRM by elected officials may be the its Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, which is chaired by the state Controller and acts as something of an audit board. Last week, that committee unanimously endorsed the recommendations of the state's Little Hoover Commission, which last year issued recommended changes to Proposition 71 and CIRM policy. The CIRM's leadership, and particularly its board chair Robert Klein, vociferously denounced and fought the Little Hoover Commission's recommendations, even threatening legal action if the Legislature took them up. So it wasn't surprising that the CIRM firmly brushed off this latest recommendation.

Now, Hilzik encourages the Legislature to use CIRM's wish for more staff, which would require a modification to Proposition 71's cap, to push through broader reforms, including those recommended by the Little Hoover Commission.

Here's an excerpt, echoing my my invited 2008 testimony to that body:

[T]he leadership of the California stem cell program... entrenched itself in almost unassailable control of its $3 billion in funding, and has self-righteously fought every attempt to improve public oversight over its disbursement of what is, after all, the people's money....

CIRM mouthpieces love to claim that the "voters' intent" should be honored by keeping the program rigorously free of political oversight -- but then the voters' intent was also to give it 50 staff members, and not a soul more.

Nothing requires the Legislature to crack open the door on Proposition 71 only as far as CIRM wishes. The Legislature should let the program have the additional staff, but on its own terms. These should include a change in CIRM's board structure and imposition of the sort of oversight the program should have had in the first place -- including a reduction in the requirement for legislative amendments from 70% to a bare majority and giving Chiang the broader authority he requested. That's the way to create a public stem cell research program that exemplifies not only good science, but good government.

Of course, I couldn't agree more.

HT to the California Stem Cell Report.

Update (Feb. 9): Both the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Riverside Press Enterprise ran editorials backing the Little Hoover Commission's recommendations and condemning the CIRM's reaction.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: