MADISON – At this month’s World Stem Cell Summit in Madison, several nations and even a few states will boast they’re relying on public dollars to propel their cutting-edge research in human embryonic stem cells.
Wisconsin won’t be among them. Beyond the federal dollars allocated for basic research on approved stem cell lines, Wisconsin spends remarkably few tax dollars on breakthrough science that has won its researchers worldwide acclaim.
Based on a fresh report by a major Washington-based “think tank,” that’s precisely as it should be.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (www.cei.org) issued a report last week that concluded the American public would be best served if stem-cell research was left to the private sector, which it believes is best equipped to market innovations efficiently and without political delay.
“It is worth noting that the most important breakthrough in the field, the 1998 (discovery that human embryonic stem cells could multiply indefinitely in an unchanging state) by University of Wisconsin professor Dr. James Thomson was the result of privately funded research,” the CEI report noted. “And Thomson’s research utilized embryos derived from in vitro fertilization clinics, another private funding success story.”
At the Sept. 22-23 World Stem Cell Summit, nations such as the United Kingdom and states such as California, Maryland and Massachusetts may be held up as stem-cell leaders because their governments have moved beyond funding basic research and into applied research and development. California’s $3-billion public bonding initiative, approved in 2004 and now pushing millions of dollars to its major academic institutions, will be a prime example.
Wisconsin’s direct public investment in stem cell research and its possible applications are modest in comparison. In fact, state government hasn’t appropriated a dime for direct stem-cell research. State involvement has been limited to $10.4 million in competitive grants and loans to stem-cell companies, which were matched by nearly $50 million in private investment.
The primary investor in human embryonic stem cell research in Wisconsin has been the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and its subsidiary, the WiCell Research Institute. Both are private, non-profit organizations, with WARF rooted in the mid-1920s commercialization of Vitamin D technologies by a UW-Madison professor and his colleagues.
It is WARF, not the university or state government, which acts as the primary funder of stem-cell research in Wisconsin. It is joined by the non-profit UW Foundation, which raises dollars from Wisconsin alumnus and other donors for hundreds of purposes, including stem-cell research. Other private foundations also contribute, as do individuals and patient advocacy groups hoping to speed along specific stem-cell treatments and therapies.
Wisconsin receives a fair share of federal grants for stem-cell research, in part because its stem-cell “lines” were created before the federal government restricted further funding. It’s also true Wisconsin is among the national leaders in federally funded academic research across the board, with hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to the UW-Madison and other research universities each year.
But federal funding of basic academic research in the United States has been the norm for 30 years or more. What’s new, the CEI report noted, is public investment by federal agencies and the states in a specific type of research on a scale that may be risky.
“This is not a question of whether the research should be conducted, but whether public funding for it is justified,” the CEI report said. “The political nature of government funding means more delays to the already lengthy research process and makes financial returns on taxpayer dollars even more doubtful.”
An often-quoted figure is Wisconsin’s $750-million investment in the life sciences. The figure is often used in the context of stem-cell research, as if to “keep up with the Joneses” in California and elsewhere.
Actually, the $750 million figure is multi-year and spread over a host of life sciences. Most of it isn’t public at all. The state contributed $50 million to the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery project, now under construction in Madison, which was matched by $50 million from WARF and $50 million from other private donors. (The public will get a deal on this building: Half of the space is public but two-thirds of the money is private.)
Another portion of the $750 million comes from the public sale of Blue Cross-Blue Shield in Wisconsin, which spawned a foundation that supports some research. The total also includes privately leveraged money for brick-and-mortar additions to the UW Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
State dollars in Wisconsin are generally fourth on the list when it comes to funding basic research, with federal merit-based grants, private funding and company-sponsored research leading the way.
Stem-cell research in Wisconsin defies the publically funded strategies of the “Joneses” on the coasts. In the short haul, that reality poses a competitive danger. Over time, it may be a strength.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.