By Tom Still

MADISON – You’ve got to hand it to those risk-addicted Californians: Saddled with a debt running into the tens of billions of dollars, they don’t slice up their credit cards and pinch pennies. They borrow even more money to invest in their future.

That’s precisely what happened last week when California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 71, which authorized the state to sell up to $3 billion in bonds to pay for human embryonic stem cell research.

Six in 10 California voters said “yes” to a ballot initiative that gives constitutional protection to stem cell research and which creates the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a research engine potentially so big it will dwarf even the efforts of the federal government. Californians are betting it will spawn a stem cell industry built around potential treatments for Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and more.

In Wisconsin, the initial reaction to Proposition 71 was that it’s bad news for the Badger state’s stem cell research efforts. UW-Madison Professor James Thomson and his team pioneered the “Stem Cells or Bust” trail for California and the rest of the world, but the fear is they will now be lured away by the promise of big bucks on the West Coast. Or, simply, that it will be tough to compete for new scientists.

Rather than speculate about a “brain drain,” Wisconsin should use its unique world reputation to regain the initiative. Proposition 71 may provide the wake-up call needed for policymakers in Wisconsin, as well as Washington, D.C. Here’s why:

 California’s stem cell vote reinforced what public-opinion polls have been saying for years: Most Americans support such research and don’t equate using donated, surplus embryos from fertility clinics with aborting a fetus. The chief opposition in California didn’t come from those who argued against human embryonic stem cell research on moral grounds, but from people who said the state was crazy to borrow more money when it’s already deeply in debt.
 California has joined the list of states that protect the right of stem cell researchers to do what they do best – research. Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts have put similar protections into place. Wisconsin needs to join those states and repudiate efforts to ban stem cell research, which would have a chilling effect on many unrelated forms of academic research. If you want to look at states with booming economies, look first to those states with robust academic R&D environments.
 President Bush and members of Congress should think long and hard about abdicating federal research responsibilities to a state, even one so big as California. Since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, academic research in the United States has been a competitive, merit-based enterprise. Federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, for example, have gone to universities that were best equipped to do the job. It created a truly national research program – and accelerated the creation of private spin-off companies. Proposition 71 could undermine that system in favor of a state-by-state approach, in which dollars matter more than scientific integrity.

California’s stem cell dollars won’t rain from the clouds overnight. Bonds must be sold on a market that may be skeptical about medium- and long-term returns. An oversight program must be created to manage California’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Leaders of the institute must take great care not to finance every stem-cell plan that comes down the pike, because some are likely to be high-tech snake oil.

On balance, however, Proposition 71 puts pressure on the White House and on other statehouses, especially the Capitol in Madison. If California voters can wager $3 billion ($6 billion, counting the debt service) on a technology they didn’t invent, policymakers in Wisconsin should find a way to help our own homegrown industry. Either that, or stand out of the way.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. The latest regenerative medicine breakthroughs in Wisconsin will be discussed Nov. 17 at the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference in Madison (