In June 2005 I paid my second visit to the great city of San Francisco, to attend the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. (Alright, so I blagged the opportunity to tack on some holiday as well; there aren’t many perks to being a short-term contract researcher, so we take what we can get.) Three years previously, I had been struck by the number of people – predominantly black – begging and sleeping rough on the streets. I was told they are ‘end-of-the-liners’. To these (admittedly ignorant) returning eyes, the problem had worsened. I was approached at almost every block, encountering people obviously out of it, mental illness, shameless begging, and apparent open drug-taking in doorways. I witnessed a smart-dressed black gentleman angrily encouraging a ‘brother’ to his feet and to stop disgracing his race, thrusting dollars and pizza into his hands in the process. All to the seeming indifference of passers-by.
ISSCR conference delegates were treated to the oratory of San Francisco’s Mayor, Gavin Newsom, who lauded and lorded over researchers and Proposition 71 – a noble venture by the Democrat State of California, whose citizens had voted to invest 3 billion dollars to fund stem cell research through the development of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) (thus circumventing President George Bush’s astigmatic withholding of federal funds). Presumably (as there is no such thing as a free lunch), Mayor Newsom was perhaps anticipating some return from the envisaged commercial proceeds that might accrue in due course. However, as much of the science presented at the conference suggests, there is a risk to this investment, with no guarantees, and decades of work necessary.
I wondered whether the people of San Francisco consider homelessness an unworthy issue. Does Mr Newsom not think a fraction of the investment in stem cell research sanctioned by ‘Prop 71’ could be used to help those people whose predicament is obvious now, without the requirement for expensive protracted research? In my hotel room, I was bombarded with TV images of evangelists who encourage gullible American Christians to part with their money. The richest country in the world was, quite rightly, set to make a commitment to aid Africa at that year’s G8 summit. Yet there is poverty and sickness on its doorstep.
On my last evening in the city, I took pity on a sobbing woman, old before her time, struggling to walk with a stick. When I initially walked past, she sunk to the floor; yet she was ‘invisible’ to everyone in the vicinity. I decided to give her the $10 bill in my pocket. She thanked me, then, as she registered the number on the bill, proceeded to get up so quickly I thought she intended to hug me. I said, “Go and eat”, and walked across the street – as she passed me at speed into a late-night liquor store. I didn’t investigate what she intended to purchase; but I can’t recall her walking stick. A fool and his money…..