October 21, 2006

Wall to Wall Cash in Missouri:
The Next Step in Federalism in Stem Cell Research is Big Bucks

This article by Matt Franck in Monday’s St. Louis Post Dispatch notes the large amount of money being spent in support of the Missouri constitutional amendment to unambiguously legalize embryonic stem cell research in that state. To date, Franck reports that pro-amendment forces have raised $28.7 million, or more than has been spent by all candidates combined in any statewide race to date in Missouri. Anti-amendment forces have raised far less—something less than $2 million to date.

What’s particularly interesting is that almost all the spending in support of the amendment has come from one couple---Jim and Virginia Stowers, the founders of the American Century family of mutual funds. The Stowers have also donated over $1.5 billion to found and support the Stowers Institute, a first class medical research center In Kansas City that is heavily involved in stem cell research. In addition to supporting the amendment, the Stowers have also put a major planned expansion of the Institute on hold pending the outcome of the amendment vote.

Predictably, amendment opponents have been crying foul, claiming that such hefty financial contributions have distorted the electoral process (one doubts that they would turn down donations of that size). It’s worth noting, however, that such issues have come up before, in the debate over Proposition 71 in California, which created that state’s embryonic stem cell research initiative. Prop 71 was largely the brain child of Robert Klein, a wealthy real estate developer who contributed $3 million of his own money (out of $25 million spent) on the campaign to pass the proposition. Klein wrote a job for himself into the proposition, prompting accusations that he was using his money to bypass the normal political process and give control of a large amount of public money essentially to himself without any accountability. Klein has also been able to tap other wealthy individuals for loans and contributions to CIRM (the California agency that manages the stem cell initiative) and others have donated money to California universities and research institutes for stem cell related purposes—one estimate by the Wall Street Journal puts the total private support for stem cells in California at over $100 million.

There are huge amounts of money at stake in the embryonic stem cell research debate, and much of the political and financial support for such initiatives is coming from parties that expect to get something out of them—large research grants, potentially lucrative patents and commercial opportunities, scientific prestige, political credit and campaign contributions, tax revenue and jobs. Bioethicists also have a dog in this fight—CIRM’s draft strategic plan earmarks $25 million to examine the social, ethical, etc implications of stem cell research, and there have been complaints from some quarters that this isn’t enough. By the rules that govern politics and the markets, this is absolutely ok. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is enshrined in the Constitution, and capitalism relies on rewards to those who provide society with useful things. The desire for money and status is perfectly compatible with, and is frequently accompanied by, a deeply felt desire to do good and heal the sick. Those who find the scramble for money distasteful might usefully contemplate Adam Smith—“It is not by the butcher’s altruism, but by his avarice, that we may expect to receive our dinner.”
- Jim Fossett, AMBI/Rockefeller Institute States and Bioethics Program

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