Sunday, November 28, 2004
Here's a fairly disturbing update on prospects for embryonic stem cell research in California. The lieutenant governor enthusiastically embraces it as "this century's Gold Rush." Indeed, according to the New York Times, the initative approved by voters creates
the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which will dole out roughly $300 million a year for 10 years in grants and loans to public and private entities pursuing stem cell studies. Final authority rests with the oversight panel, which will include representatives from most of the state's major medical schools, members of nonprofit research institutes, executives of commercial biotechnology firms and public members who are advocates for research in a range of diseases.
The San Diego Union-Tribune characterizes the initiative as assigning
the governor, several constitutional officers and administrators of the University of California system to select the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, which will supervise the institute. It also lays out the specific qualifications of the nonsalaried committee members, ensuring that there will be a mix of research scientists used to administering millions of dollars in grant money, business people and members of patient-advocate groups.
Conspicuously absent from either of these summaries of the "oversight panel" is any indication that the panel will include folks who might be inclined to exercise any meaningful degree of moral oversight. Maybe it is too much to expect them to muddy the clear waters of boundless scientific progress by injecting a naysaying religious voice, but how about some sort of religion-free ethicist? A philosopher? A medical ethicist? Gosh, even someone who once taught a business ethics course at the local community college would be preferable to a lineup of folks predisposed simply to facilitate widespread bellying up to the publicly-financed trough. (The San Fran Chronicle reports one critic's complaint that the panel "will be made up entirely of people who will stand to benefit from the research.") The panel's first member indicated that he and his colleagues will need to ensure that "the most appropriate infrastructure is put into place, the best science supported and the best people brought into this field." Simple enough. Good science by good scientists. What possibly could go wrong?
Has the voters' resounding approval (59% to 41%) of the initiative been equated with a collective judgment that ongoing embryonic stem cell research will pose no dilemmas on which morality-driven conversations might be appropriate? I'm happy to be corrected if, as a non-Californian, I'm missing out on some relevant aspect of the oversight panel, and I'd love to learn how the system will make room for moral engagement and discernment. Absent such capacity, it seems that "Gold Rush" is even more apt than the lieutenant governor knew.