Friday, November 09, 2007

New York Times on the failure of the NJ stem cell bond issue

The analysis by the New York Times of the failure of the NJ bond issue on stem cells is a seeming mirror image of an article by Lysaght on the success of the California bond issue on stem cells (Proposition 71), but deeper inspection suggests that there is more to the failure of the New Jersey bond issue than poor organization of the bond issue proponents.

In Bid for Stem Cell Financing Was Late and Lukewarm, Organizers Concede, RICHARD G. JONES and KAREEM FAHIM write:

Supporters [of the bond issue] now say they were undone by assuming too much in a state that has become solidly Democratic over the last decade and by spending too little time and money trying to defeat a coalition of well-organized opponents.

However, the Times article is a bit tricky on who spent the most. Lysaght in her article The Scope of Public Discourse Surrounding Proposition 71: Looking Beyond the Moral Status of the Embryo, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry (Aug. 2006) gave quantitative details of "how much" money proponents and opponents of Proposition 71 utilized. The opponents of Proposition 71 were hugely outspent.

The Times is a bit sketchy on the details on the New Jersey matter. Toward the bottom of the article, the Times notes that New Jersey Right to Life raised less than $100,000. The beginning of the Times article noted that proponents of the bond issue mounted a tepid two-month campaign with about $600,000. On the facts presented, it would appear that the proponents of the bond issue outspent the opponents, as in California, but walked away with a stinging defeat, unlike in California.

The Times article did touch an important point, that New Jersey taxpayers did NOT see a need for taxpayers to finance the research: Mr. Oster said that although polls conducted in July, shortly after Mr. Corzine signed legislation placing the measure on the ballot, showed that nearly 7 in 10 New Jersey residents supported the research, organizers in favor of the bill also noted than barely 4 in 10 supported using state money to pay for it.

On the work of Tamra Lysaght (University of Sydney, Australia), see

Ironically, the Times article on the New Jersey bond issue is another piece of evidence AGAINST using the methodology of Lysaght, which relied solely on newspaper accounts to analyze Proposition 71. The Times was out-of-step with New Jersey voters on this issue, and didn't come to grips with the true origins of the failure of the bond issue, which went well beyond the failure of the proponents to organize.


Separately, of the background perceptions on the likely success of the NJ bond issue, observe the following from blue Jersey:

Thu Oct 25, 2007 at 09:00:00 AM EDT

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll finds that by a 56%-37% margin, likely voters would support a $450 million bond referendum question to fund stem cell research. Catholics support the measure by 48%-41% and evangelicals and born-again Christians do so by a similar 48%-42% margin. The breakdown is 62%-22% for Democrats, 57%-32% for independents, and Republicans are split 45%-46%.

But even among those who disagree, only a small minority do so on moral grounds. Of those opposing the referendum, 58% say the state can't afford to borrow the money while 26% say it's for moral reasons. Tim Vercellotti, director of polling at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, says "the margin favoring approval of the stem cell research bond issue is typical for recent ballot questions about state uses of public funds, despite public controversy surrounding this type of research. That some of the key constituencies expected to oppose the ballot question, such as evangelical Christians and Republican voters, are narrowly in favor or divided speaks to the strength of public support for the bond issue."

By a much larger 70%-21% margin, voters support the ballot question which would dedicate the entire penny increase in the sales tax towards property tax relief.

IPBiz posts these grossly inaccurate forecasts of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll with the expectation that said forecasts are likely to be Sikahema'd in short order.

The comment below offers a different perspective on "what went wrong" with the New Jersey stem cell program. Of the initial grants, IPBiz had posted in May 2006 a listing of the New Jersey grants, and subsequently there was a mini-debate on IPBiz concerning which grants were related to embryonic stem cells. For example, recall Rick Cohen's nearly $300K grant was directed: To provide basic and advanced training in the field of human embryonic stem cell biology and to develop a well-trained pool of scientists in New Jersey proficient in hESC culture techniques with the goal of advancing New Jersey's leadership in stem cell research.

Separately, note also that a number of embryonic stem cell researchers (e.g., Trounson, Cha) arose out of the IVF area, and that there is a strong IVF community in the New York/New Jersey area (e.g., the main cytoplasmic transfer work was done at St. Barnabas in Livingston, NJ).

IPBiz returns to a central theme: if embryonic stem cell workers cannot do what Hwang Woo Suk claimed to have done in 2004-2005 in the area of human SCNT, then the area of therapeutic cures with human embryonic stem cells is a long way off, a lot longer than researchers in the area want people to know. Further, the fact that the major workers in SCNT did not recognize that Hwang's work was fraudulent underscores the fragile nature of core understanding in the field. Insiders in Korea spilled the beans on Hwang almost immediately after Hwang's second paper was published, but the journal Science, and major workers in the field, still clung to their belief in the work in December 2005. They allowed their "want to believe" dimension outstrip their critical faculties, and that is sad.


Blogger bob said...

I wouldn't mind if New Jersey would have done embryonic stem cell research, but it was clear that their focus was on adult stem cell research and I might add that even adult stem cell researchers weren't happy with the direction of the adult stem cell program either.
Here is a comment by an adult stem cell researcher that left NJ:
"Kateri Moore, bone marrow stem cell researcher and associate professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, NY, told The Scientist. Moore and her husband, Ihor Lemischka, now director of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at Mt. Sinai, recently left Princeton University after nearly two decades. "We were concerned with the direction that the New Jersey effort was headed, and the lack of prominent stem cell biologists in New Jersey." Indeed, added Moore, the numerous large pharmaceutical companies in New Jersey seem to have taken the place of academic endeavors in stem cell science "

By the way Ihor Lemischka received the only embryonic stem cell research grant during the first round of funding in New Jersey.

Watching this whole episode unravel is quite amusing. Wasn't it Corzine who said the Stem Cell effort in NJ will help NJ's floundering Pharmaceutical Industry? And now that ballot question 2 was voted down he is saying it won't put an end to stem cell research in NJ because he will call on the drug companies to fund the program. Hey I thought they were floundering and didn't have any money!

12:10 PM  
Blogger Tamra said...

In response to your comment:
"Lysaght in her article The Scope of Public Discourse Surrounding Proposition 71: Looking Beyond the Moral Status of the Embryo, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry (Aug. 2006) gave quantitative details of "how much" money proponents and opponents of Proposition 71 utilized. The opponents of Proposition 71 were hugely outspent."
“Ironically, the Times article on the New Jersey bond issue is another piece of evidence AGAINST using the methodology of Lysaght, which relied solely on newspaper accounts to analyze Proposition 71.”

This study was a qualitative analysis of public discourses surrounding a particular policy episode concerning stem cell research. There was no quantitative analysis of the amount of resources spent by either side of the Proposition 71. The study was also not aimed at drawing conclusions about why the proposition did or did not pass. I do not claim to know the answer to that, and while it is an interesting question, it was beyond the scope of my study. Rather, the aim was to qualitatively examine the types of arguments participants used in the public discourse to support or oppose the passage of the policy and relate this back to the literature in bioethics and science policy development.

Every methodology has its weaknesses and this study was no exception. The best researchers can do is employ those that are considered most appropriate in meeting the research objectives and within the limitations imposed by the scope of the study. The methodology chosen for this study was grounded in the relevant prior literature and provided evidence to support my argument that these debates are highly complex and that bioethics needs consider the broader socio-political contexts in which they occur. Even if the moral issues surrounding the moral status of the embryo were resolved – and my own view is that this is unlikely – it will not detract from the abuse of power, trust and public resources that manifests in these debates. All of which in my mind, are extremely important ethical issues if we want to live in a society that is transparent, equitable and inclusive.

It is often far easier to criticise the methods than deconstruct the logic of the argument being made in an academic paper, particularly when someone simply disagrees with its conclusions. I do welcome your criticisms but ask that you keep them within the context of what I have published.

Tamra Lysaght
University of Sydney

6:16 PM  

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