03 Nov Californians: Stem cells important enough to go into debt for
Californians have approved putting their state into further debt to fund stem-cell research. In election-day polling, 59 percent of California voters approved Proposition 71, which will provide $3 billion in research grants over the next decade.
The proposition, which was endorsed by state Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in mid-October, establishes a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The institute will be able to provide stem-cell researchers up to $350 million in research grants every year, allocating up to 10 percent of these funds to non-profit organizations for the construction of research facilities in the first five years.
To put up the $3 billion, California — already America’s most indebted state — will sell bonds and must pay back approximately $6 billion over the course of 30 years. After the first five years, interest payments will come out of the state’s general fund.
According to Jim Leonhart of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, stem-cell research is conducted mostly at the University of Wisconsin. And, while researchers sometimes gain federal grants to do that research, the funds have been cut and will remain capped under President Bush. No federally funded institution may conduct research on stem-cell cultures created after August 9, 2001.
This year, UW-Madison has about $27 million in funding for its stem cell program. And, while Proposition 71’s $3 billion will not create immediate results in the field, many in Wisconsin’s biotechnology industry are still apprehensive. “We’re really going to have to be creative in reallocating funds,” said Leonhart. “We’re definitely behind the 8-ball.”
Currently, Wisconsin is a leader in the field of stem cell research. James Thompson, a UW-Madison biologist and the first to grow human embryonic stem cells in the lab, has helped to establish the state at the forefront of the field.
“I think we’re way out ahead of everybody,” said Andrew Cohn, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. “We’re a world leader. I think that people are trying to catch us, and this is one way that California is trying to do it. But we have every intention of maintaining our position.”
The Californian funds may create more competitive research facilities and more stem-cell lines, but it will take a while for these funds to get to non-profit entities.
“Certainly the California initiative will provide more resources for researchers in that state, and they’ll provide more competition for Wisconsin and other states for scientists and for other private foundation dollars,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Both Still and Cohn believe that the proposition will send a message to other states about the importance of stem-cell research. Because California is already in debt, the underlying message, Still said, is that “the voters over there believe that stem cell research is so important that they’re willing to make that investment.”
“California is a risk-taking state,” he said. “That’s how they’ve prospered … and maintained its innovative and entrepreneurial edge. I think we have that kind of edge, too, but we certainly have to think long and hard about that kind of money being focused in one state, and what it can do to our infrastructure. If we do, it’s going to create more high paying jobs in Wisconsin.”
Katy Williams is a Madison-based freelance writer for WTN.