The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the $3 billion state stem cell agency, is in the news again, but not because of any miraculous cure or therapy it produced. The news is that CIRM wants more money from Californians and that calls for a look back.
CIRM was created by Proposition 71 in 2004 to fund embryonic stem cell research the Bush administration declined to fund. The prime mover of Proposition 71 was Robert Klein II, a real-estate magnate. The campaign featured actors Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve and promised miraculous cures for a host of diseases. CIRM has produced no cures of any kind, as their own scientists acknowledge.
Neurosurgeon Gary Steinberg told the Los Angeles Times that, “so far we haven’t changed anything, we haven’t moved anything to the clinic.” Robert Klein told the Times that “I passionately believe there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially.”
Such therapies already exist, but CIRM played no role in recent medical-scientific advances such as the construction of a new windpipe for a Colombian woman, and near total restoration of sight to a man whose eyes sustained chemical damage in 1948. These were triumph of adult stem cell research. CIRM specializes in embryonic stem cell research. No CIRM-produced cures have trickled down to California patients, but the money flows strong to those in the CIRM insiders’ club.
As David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report notes, CIRM has handed out $1.1 billion to about 400 California scientists and research institutions, at a pace that runs close to $56,000 an hour. Salaries are a big-ticket item. As the Los Angeles Times’ Jack Dolan noted, in 2009 the CIRM paid president Alan Trounson $490,000, far beyond the $173,987 salary of California’s governor, and much more than the $199,700 Francis S. Collins earns as director of the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The November 22 article also noted that CIRM employs former state senator Art Torres, who once headed the state Democratic Party, at a salary of $225,000. CIRM pays communications boss Don Gibbons $190,000 a year, also more than the governor of California, and nearly as much as the head of NIH. Robert Klein declined to take any annual salary until 2008 but the multimillionaire now draws $150,000 from CIRM.
“In the midst of a major recession that has not been kind to real estate, it became necessary to at least take some salary,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Klein ends his stint as CIRM boss at the end of December, but he told the Times he would like another $3 billion in public funds for CIRM. David Jensen pegs it as much as $5 billion, and as early as 2012.
These billions would go to a state agency that fails to deliver, that remains an insiders’ club, and is “essentially accountable to no one,” according to state senator Elaine Kontominas Alquist, a San Jose Democrat. Robert Klein designed CIRM as an isolation ward, immune to any meaningful oversight. Art Torres lobbied to keep it that way when the first real performance audit of CIRM was about to take place.
Now CIRM, which still has about $2 billion to spend, wants more money, even though the federal government is now funding embryonic research. Voters, therefore, may get the chance to approve another $3-5 billion bond issue for an unaccountable state agency that resists scrutiny, spends lavishly on its own, and which has delivered on none of its promises.
To approve these funds would increase the debt load of a state with the credit rating of an unemployed carnival worker, and running a deficit of more than $25 billion. It would also amount to further enrichment of what amounts to the California Institute for the Redistribution of Money, in a state that already abounds in agencies that transfer money from the people to government.
Or, voters could find a golden opportunity. Government agencies are easy to start but practically impossible to end. Refusing to re-fund CIRM would reduce government, ease our debt load, and start the wrap-up process for an agency that, like government in general, promises much more than it can deliver.
Meanwhile, last Thursday outgoing California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped Robert Klein for another term as CIRM chairman after the withdrawal of Canadian scientist Alan Bernstein. Controller John Chiang nominated Art Torres for the post, to be decided later this month by the CIRM board.