Mass BioTake: A Cautionary Tale
What do you do when you see good friends fall in with a bad crowd? Does it pain you to watch their noble intentions get perverted by shameless public servants confident that they will never be held accountable? Does fear of retribution stop you from speaking out? If you do open your mouth, do your friends treat you like a leper?
Get used to it. In our new age of public-private partnerships, there will be plenty more where that came from.
I have the privilege of working with some of the smartest scientists, entrepreneurs, and life science executives in the world. But somehow they seem to have forgotten the proverb – “lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.”
Stem cell science might become a miracle of modern medicine. Or not; that’s why they call it science. So far, the prime virtue that makes stem cells unique is their potency as a wedge issue in the culture wars.
Were you among the good citizens of my blue-tribe state that thought harnessing anger against the red-tribe president might be a clever way to advance the cause of science? Are you happy with the outcome? Have you given it a close look?
By the time our state legislature got through with the Stem Cell Initiative it had evolved into the Life Science Initiative, which then morphed into $500 million dollars of construction union pork festooned with countless earmarks like highway interchanges, sewage treatment plants, and new buildings for empty life science “incubators” in remote corners of the state. The true miracle will occur if one dollar out of a hundred actually ends up supporting stem cell scientists.
I can't help but ask my colleagues, did you really think you could outsmart professional politicians? While you were busy studying physics and chemistry they were racking up decades of experience taking advantage of well meaning rubes who thought they could show up at the statehouse and get something for nothing. Did your superior intellect and advanced educations convince you that you could use them rather than the other way around?
Like me, are you one of the many people who honestly believe that our governor's heart was in the right place when he started down this road? Too bad his head went missing. Maybe it was kidnapped by the legislators-for-life that actually run this state.
What happens when you ask a state official at a public biotech forum to share some talking points that might mollify angry citizens after they figure out where their taxes have gone? You get a five minute non-answer that boils down to 1) don’t worry about the budget; we're going to borrow the money, and 2) well, not all the money is going to be wasted.
“Not All The Money Is Going To Be Wasted.” If legislation came with truth in labeling laws, this would make the top ten.
At least this billion dollar “Life Science” program paid for with money we don’t have will be guided by the wise counsel of the 550 member industry trade group that pushed this initiative from the outset. They are the experts, right?
Well, the current trade group’s President, a former state representative who may or may not have ever taken a biology course, was recently fined $10,000 for ethics violations stemming from his successful secret effort to land this $350,000-a-year plum position while serving as the governor’s top economic development aid. His role for the governor? Designing the $250 million in tax credits that form a key part of this package. I wonder if his ethics fine is tax deductible.
But hey, at least he’s an improvement over the last president this trade group hired, a former state House speaker who was “forced to resign under a cloud after pleading guilty to federal obstructions charges.”
As this story plays out, what can the business executives involved do? Should they admit that they knew this was a con game all along so it was important to hire a con man to run it? Or should they confess to being naïve bumpkins? If they do anything other than grit their teeth and brazen it out they will have to watch all that free money disappear along with their reputations.
If you're a scientist that actually receives a bit of the money that is not wasted, do you tell yourself that your work is so important that having three out of four dollars consumed by perfectly legal institutional corruption is a small price to pay? Or do you just shrug and say, “Hey, I got mine?” If feeding at the public trough is good enough for bankers, it’s good enough for biologists!
Are we all so bamboozled by the Red vs. Blue permanent campaign that we haven’t noticed that our legislative system has been redesigned to suborn integrity? It's not an accident. And it's not just the wicked who succumb. While the wicked will always be with us, they are thankfully few. But when vast armies of well meaning people march into the mire they can only fall silent once trapped, lest they end up implicating themselves. What happens to our country when industry after industry falls into the honey pot?
What magical power will protect my governor’s good buddy, the President elect, from meeting the same fate after he moves into the White House? When this well-intentioned billion dollar state fiasco goes federal and scales up by a factor of a thousand, why would we expect the outcome to be any different?
The limits on power built into our constitution were put there by our founders for a reason. They bequeathed us a system purposely designed not to do the most good but to do the least harm should it fall into self-serving hands. Each time we dismantle these limits motivated to do more good, would it make sense to pause and reflect on how these powers might be used otherwise as they accumulate over time?
There are so many worthy challenges facing us as a society, from figuring out how to generate clean energy to making our healthcare system as technologically advanced and economically accessible as, say, the personal computer industry. Do we really think that 535 Congressmen perpetually seeking re-election are going to accomplish this without sending three dollars out of four down the rat hole? Why do we think that? Has Reason retired to make room for Hope?
In my business we have a saying. "Hope is not a strategy."
Perhaps someone can forward this column to one of the 8,000 policy wonks busily packing their bags to move into the White House. They may survive a week or two before the Washington culture works its magic and they become part of the problem.
Be forewarned. There will be no real Change until each of us confronts the shortcomings in ourselves, rejecting the temptation to serve as willing accomplices in a game rigged to serve only our gamemasters, be they Red, Blue, or Green.