California taxpayers have spent $135 million in recent years building state-of-the-art research facilities on four private campuses for stem cell research — an expense some critics have questioned in the face of California’s budget crisis.
In 2008, the state’s publicly funded stem cell research agency approved $270 million for 12 research facilities around the state. About half that money went to eight new buildings constructed on University of California system campuses, including one that officially opened earlier this month at UC San Francisco. The other half went to new buildings on four private campuses, including Stanford University and the University of Southern California.
At the time, due to a ban on embryonic cell research, many thought it was prudent to build seperate facilities to preserve federal grants for projects that may have been put in jeopardy by an association with embryos.
Six of the 12 new buildings have already been completed and are now supporting research teams that hope to find treatments and cures for some of medicine’s most unforgiving diseases.
But the state’s financial crisis has led some longtime critics of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to question whether public dollars should have been spent on these new buildings, at private institutions. Susan Fogel, co-founder of the Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research, noted that money is being taken away from other voter-mandated projects.
“I support funding for science, but before they take money from children’s health programs, they should be taking money from CIRM,” Fogel said. Marcy Darnovsky, associate director for the Oakland-based Center for Genetics and Society, said particularly troubling is “the use of taxpayer money to fund facilities on private university campuses.”
In 2004, in response to then-President George W. Bush’s federal restrictions on stem cell research, California voters approved $3 billion in bond money for stem cell research. The bonds are just now beginning to be paid back out of general fund revenue.
The measure approved by voters allowed 10 percent of the funding to go toward infrastructure such as buildings, and CIRM leaders decided to spend most of that money as early as possible so the new buildings could support research the agency paid for down the road, CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons said.
The public funding was used as seed money for the research institutions, who then attracted private donors and other sources of funding to complete the projects, Gibbons said. Gibbons defended the new buildings, saying the taxes and new jobs generated by the investment have fed back into the state coffers more than the payments for the bonds have taken away.
“Our tax revenue far exceeds the debt service, so we are still growing the pot of money available to home-care — not shrinking it,” he said. He noted that the new facilities protect scientists from the whims of federal policy, which has yet to be fully resolved on the issue of whether federal funding can be used for embryonic stem cell research. And he said the agency had an obligation to fund facilities at the best research institutes in the state — not just the public ones.
“Our mandate is to fund the best science that’s out there,” he said, “so we’d be irresponsible not to also support science on private campuses.”
Not all critics of the agency think that funding private buildings was inappropriate. John Simpson of nonprofit Consumer Watchdog described the building funding as “one of the things that CIRM actually got right.”
Simpson, who has often been critical of CIRM’s spending practices, noted that CIRM required institutions to find matching funds, which they did.
“It also had a positive economic impact at a time at a time when that was needed,” he said.
When an agency that has billions of public dollars to spend, questioning $125,000 might seem to be quibbling over pennies.
But in cash-strapped California, State Controller John Chiang decided to do just that last month about a line item in the budget of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Chiang sits on the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee — the one state entity tasked with review of how the publicly funded stem cell research agency spends its money. It meets just once a year, and this year, that meeting happened Jan. 28.
Though minutes of the meeting have not yet been posted, controller spokeswoman Hallye Jordan said “there were lots of questions on CIRM’s budget,” particularly on external contracts, including one for $125,000 a year for public relations.
Asked why the agency needed the PR help, CIRM President Alan Trounson said the agency was “in an unusual situation as they have to respond to the negative press about CIRM,” according to Jordan.
“The controller noted that he still didn’t see why they need to spend $125,000 responding to bad news,” according to Jordan’s written synopsis of the meeting.
Don Gibbons — CIRM’s in-house spokesman who is paid $190,000 for the job — said the contract with Fleishman-Hillard International Communications is “actually a very small contract by PR agency terms.”
He said Trounson misspoke about the PR firm’s hiring.
“It’s not dealing with bad news for the most part, it’s helping us look for opportunities to inform the public about the work CIRM is doing,” he said. But CIRM-watcher John Simpson of nonprofit Consumer Watchdog agreed with Chiang on the issue.
“Their communications budget is an outrageous waste,” he said. “They’re ineffective, they’re not transparent about what they do and they’re more interested in hype than in serving a true public information function.”