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Stem cell commission looks for new money

Dan Gincel

The Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund received a record 180 applications for fiscal 2011 seeking a piece of the $10.4 million available.

Now, the commission in charge of deciding where the money goes is facing the question of how to fund as many projects as possible next year with the state facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. Members of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission — the panel in charge of awarding grants from the fund — met on Tuesday to hash out ways to address what might happen when the state’s fiscal 2012 budget is unveiled.

“Everything is going to be severely looked at,” said commission Chairwoman Margaret Conn Himelfarb. “The reality is that there will not be any increases this year, because doing so would increase the deficit. Our hope is to maintain level funding.”

Established in 2006, the commission oversees the research fund, which has provided $68.4 million in research grants over the past four years. Last year, the commission awarded grants to 41 projects.

The fund has an operating budget of $10.4 million for fiscal 2011, which began July 1. The fund is the third-largest state-supported stem cell research program in the country, behind California and New York.

Commission members discussed ways to stay competitive with other states by finding ways to fund more projects with likely no more money coming from the state than what was allotted this year.

“We received a record number of applications this year, and we don’t see how the budget is going to turn around,” said Dan Gincel, director of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund. “There is much more need for funds right now.”

Ideas floated to generate new funds included creating a private foundation as an offshoot of the commission and enabling the commission’s website to accept funds from potential donors. Other options discussed, including soliciting sponsorships and putting a check-off box on Maryland income tax forms that would earmark money for the fund, raised questions.

Commission member and former chairwoman Karen Rothenberg voiced concern that the commission’s decision to pursue funding through those options could lead to trouble.

“It could raise some political questions that might not be worth raising,” she said.

Commission member Suzanne Ostrand-Rosenberg added that fundraising outside of the state’s allotment could be a “radical” departure from what is allowed under the statute that created the fund.

“Now we’re talking like we’re going to be an advocacy group for stem cell research,” she said.

“We’re a government-appointed commission, and I’m not sure we can just go out and do whatever we want,” Ostrand-Rosenberg said.

Ira Schwartz, the assistant attorney general assigned to the commission, said the issue boiled down to one of policy. He said the statute authorizing the fund does allow the commission to work with funds outside of what is appropriated by the state.

“It’s a separate issue whether it’s appropriate at all to go out and hustle for that money,” Schwartz said. “The statute doesn’t say we do or we don’t have the right, but it does contemplate other sources of funds.”

The commission will make its final awards for the current year in May.