The Science of Sustainability

Prop 71: Stem Cell Funding Was Overhyped But Worth It

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Remember back in 2004 that big debate about whether California voters should fund embryonic stem (ES) cell research? It passed and now 8 years later, people are starting to ask what we have to show for it. It's more than you might think…

First off, though, there are no cures using ES cells in the offing. The money spent so far has gone into recruiting, setting up labs, basic research, and so on. This has laid the foundation from where eventual cures can come.

In fact, before going any further, it is important to reflect a bit on what was happening in 2004. President Bush had restricted ES cell research to the point where very little meaningful research could go on here in the U.S. And researchers were starting to vote with their feet.

Key stem cell researchers in the U.S. began to talk about going to places like England and Singapore where they could do their research. There was a real worry the U.S. would be left behind and that this would keep U.S. researchers away from the forefront of biological research for the first time in our history. It was a frustrating, scary time for scientists.

Of course it was an awful time for people suffering from awful incurable diseases too. They were worried that cures involving ES cells would not come in time for them unless research was done in a big way here in the U.S.

In swooped Proposition 71 to save the day. It provided 3 billion dollars of funding for ES cell research here in California. At a minimum it provided stopgap funding to keep ES cell research alive and well here in the U.S. until President Obama re-opened the spigots again in 2009.

Even if this is all Proposition 71 accomplished, I would argue it was worth it. Eventual cures using these cells are 5-6 years closer than they would be without the money spent by California voters. This is a big deal to patients suffering from all those life threatening diseases we always hear about.

Unfortunately this probably isn’t what Californians voted for. If media reports from then and now are to be believed, they expected cures not basic research. They wanted the paralyzed to walk, Alzheimer’s patients to remember and Michael J. Fox to return to being Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly.

These were unrealistic expectations then and they still are today. There was no way something as new and complex as ES cells was going to generate a cure in just a few years or even a decade. (Of course one thing is certain, without research ES cells would never cure anything.)

I can remember back in 2004 thinking proponents were overselling this proposition. I spoke with a lot of scientists at the time and they all agreed. But what I don’t remember and am having trouble reconstructing is who did the overselling.

Ads like this one don’t seem to overpromise, they just talk about what we might be able to get out of ES cell research:

Whatever the reason for these inflated expectations, scientists everywhere are going to have to deal with the fallout of a disappointed voting public. They are going to either have to come up with cures fast (unlikely at least with ES cells) or explain why expectations have not been met. And this isn’t just a concern for stem cell researchers.

This has the potential to impact lots of science research as unfulfilled promises causes an increasingly skeptical public to become more so. Scientists will need to show that they did not overhype this or explain why they oversold it in the first place. Neither sounds too enticing.

More Information:

California's stem cell agency ponders its future

California stem cell research: Were voters duped?

California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)

Geron both pulls out of the first clinical trial of embryonic stem cells and the entire research area

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Category: Biology, Blog

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.