What’s not to like about Proposition 14, the ballot measure that would authorize $5.5 billion in state general obligation bonds (i.e., bonds paid by you and me and would total $7.8 billion after interest) to fund grants for stem cell research? Its proponents promise “to develop treatments, advance clinical trials and achieve new scientific breakthroughs” for some of the most debilitating and deadly conditions: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, as well as other mental health and brain conditions, to name a few.
If the promises of miracle cures sound too good to be true, you would be right. So says whistleblower Jeff Sheehy, current board member of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) which oversees the granting of research funds received from the bonds under the previous 2004 proposition. He explains his reasons for coming out in opposition in a recent opinion piece he authored for the San Diego Union Tribune.
With respect to miracle cures, Sheehy directly refutes the claims of proponents of the measure that CIRM-funded projects have already successfully produced numerous success stories. Under current law, CIRM must receive royalties for any U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved treatments in which its funding played an important role. For the two FDA-approved drug treatments for fatal blood cancers mentioned in the Arguments in Favor of Proposition 14, CIRM received no royalties at all, so the funding given to the research projects in question was not key to the development of the cures.
In fact, of the $1.1 billion dollars that the proponents of the 2004 bond measure promised would be returned to the State in the form of royalties, patents and licensing fees resulting from CIRM-funded research, Sheehy tells us that only $350,000, just .032% of the expected amount, has actually materialized.
There is an additional concern about inflated salaries for the chair and vice-chair of the board. The salaries of CIRM board members are available on their website. While acknowledging that people need to earn a living, it is difficult to imagine how the duties of the chair and president call for a maximum salary of $508,750. The vice-chair can earn up to a maximum of $332,000. In comparison, Governor Newsom earns $210,000 for running the world’s fifth-largest economy. The President of the United States earns a mere $400,000. These inflated salaries are impossible to defend.
Yet they want more money.
But this is not all. There are some serious conflicts of interest on the board of CIRM. Most of the board members are associated with institutions like Stanford, the University of California and other entities involved with research that also happen to have received 79% of the $2.7 billion in grant money already disbursed by CIRM. Proposition 14 would exacerbate this conflict by adding more board members from these institutions. It is worth noting that CIRM wields total control over state bond monies, yet operates without meaningful oversight from the state of California.
Then there is the thorny issue of embryonic stem cell research, which involves the destruction of a human embryo in order to harvest the stem cells, as CIRM admits. Human experimentation, anyone?
Proposition 14 is simply unnecessary, unaffordable and ethically questionable. Stem cell research is already well funded. The federal government provides $2.1 billion for such research, and private funding provides another $10 billion. With California’s current fiscal problems resulting from the COVID shutdowns, the last thing the state needs is another large bill to pay before state services can be covered. It’s time to defund the boondoggle by rejecting Proposition 14.