California's voter-created stem cell institute is expected to award $227 million in grants today to seed a laboratory building spree at a dozen universities and research centers, including USC, UCLA and UC Irvine.
New labs are needed to house the growing number of researchers funded by 2004's Proposition 71, officials at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine say, even though one of the main pressures on lab space is likely to be lifted after the November election.
All three presidential candidates, all senators -- Republican John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- support human embryonic stem cell research and would be expected to lift restrictions that have forced many scientists to set up dual labs.
Concerned about the destruction of embryos, President Bush in August 2001 limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines that had been developed up to that point. Scientists wanting to study new lines had to find other funding and set up separate labs lest they inadvertently use a pen or a petri dish bought with federal money.
"The primary argument that was presented for Proposition 71 -- particularly in the area of large facilities -- is becoming less and less important," said Jesse Reynolds of the Oakland-based Center for Genetics and Society. "Bush's restrictions will most likely be undone before the first brick is laid."
John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog agreed that the need for separate laboratories probably will disappear after the election, but not the need for new labs. Proposition 71, crafted in response to the Bush ban, provides $3 billion in bond money for research, to be doled out over 10 years. As much as 10% of that amount can be spent on facilities.
"Arguably, there is a need for laboratories to do research on the scale that they want to do it," Simpson said.
He also praised the requirement that applicants leverage each grant by tapping other donors. Private and other institutional donations will raise the total building spree to $800 million.
The bond-funded building boom is a windfall to state universities that are being urged to cut their overall budgets by 10% because of state money problems.
But the largest grant -- about $47.5 million -- is expected to go to the private Stanford University, the third-wealthiest university in the country, with an endowment of $17 billion.