Tuesday, March 01, 2005

High Risk or Low Risk

Robert Klein can make a serious mistake today.

Right now, the chairman of the California stem cell agency seems bent on a course that not only will damage his own credibility but that of the agency that is so important to the people of California and the world. He seems to want to handle privately a legal petition for more accountability and openness.

He can continue on that course or he can support public hearings into the issues that have been raised by legitimate groups and individuals, including the former chancellor of UC San Francisco.

It is a low risk, high reward proposition to hold hearings. They certainly will not impede the progress of the agency, which is exercising some deliberation in the matters at issue. Hearing the voices of all concerned brings everybody into the tent. It ameloriates criticism that concerns have not been heard. It will also provide valuable information that can help draw realistic standards for openness and accountability.

On the other hand, it is a high risk, low reward proposition to take the matters behind closed doors. Such an effort will not stop the critics. Indeed, it gives them more ammunition. Already their assaults are resonating around the world, given our Internet age.

Klein is a well-to-do man with active and substantial business interests aside from his work on Prop. 71 and the agency it created. He deserves great credit for his public service, which has undoubtedly drawn him away from his own enterprises. He was not compelled to serve on the CIRM oversight committee, a task he may come to regret assuming. Many other persons in his position have shied away from public service for a host of reasons.

Klein must be rankled, at least from time to time, by the allegations of conflicts-of-interest and impropriety. Any of us would be in his position. He is also legitimately suspicious that some of the critics simply want to strangle CIRM.

But if they do, the best strategy is to let them display their most heartfelt desires in public in a venue where strong, contrary voices will also be heard.

On today's agenda at the meeting of the Oversight Committee, which he chairs, Klein has placed a resolution to allow him to handle personally the petition for hearings into Halpern-Lee petition, which is seeking adoption of certain standards on conflict of interest, open meetings, hiring and compensation.

It is not entirely clear what Klein would do with that delegation of authority. But it is clear that he wants to sidestep the full board.

Klein repeatedly has voiced his support for the highest and best standards for CIRM on accountability, openness and conflicts of interest. Talk is one thing. Action is another. Alta Charo, the noted bio-ethicist and lawyer, is addressing today's CIRM meeting on matters not related to the Halpern-Lee petition. But she is fond of quoting
Jane Addams (1860 - 1935), the founder of the social work movement: "Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics."

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