May 24, 2024


And in California, which is set to become a beneficiary of Korea’s pratfall, embryonic stem cell scientists are gloomy for a different reason. No matter how hard they shake the piggy bank, nothing is falling out. Despite the fact that voters authorised a US$3 billion bond issue to be lavished on their labs and research projects more than a year ago, not one cent has been spent. “I liken it to the Iraq thinking — we won the war and didn’t know what to do afterward,” says Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate who serves on the board of the institute which is supposed to spend the money.

The problem is that opponents of the institute have tied it up in countless lawsuits and until these are solved, the state will not issue the bonds. Not all of its foes oppose the institute on ethical grounds. Some believe that the money should be spent on California’s pressing social problems. Some oppose more taxation. Some — including a number of legislators — are critical of the institute’s unusual system of governance, which was devised to minimise meddling by legislators and the public.

In the meantime, the institute has subsisted on a $3 million loan from the state and a $5 million gift from audio magnate Ray Dolby. But this money will run out in May. And as the months pass, more bad news leaks out. The latest is that royalties to the state from research will be far less than forecast. Advocates of the institute once talked about $537 to $1.1 billion over the next 35 years. In August a commission set up by the state legislature reported that these projections were “based on unrealistic assumptions about the potential economic impact” of the stem cell program. The institute is “engaged in expectation management, both financial and scientific”, says Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society, who supports embryo research, but opposes the institute.