Friday, April 01, 2005

Consider This

With only four working days left before the next meeting of the oversight committee of the stem cell agency, Californians remain pretty much in the dark about what is likely to voted on by the panel.

Nominally the agency has posted its agenda on the Internet. The brief document provides some general hints on matters to be discussed, such as its first step towards issuing $3 billion in bonds (see item below).

However, most of the agenda consists of ambiguities that are of little help to members of public, businesses, academicians or scientists about whether it is worth their time to attend the session.

“Consideration” is the key word. Virtually all of the agenda items that might appear to be substantive are listed for “consideration,” such as “consideration of conflicts policy for ICOC (oversight committee) members.” Other subjects to be “considered” are:

  • Working group policies, including confidentiality, meeting format, conflict of interest, compensation and chair positions
  • A report from the standards working group search subcommittee, including but not limited to consideration of appointment of members (5 ICOC patient advocates, 9 scientists, and 4 medical ethicists) to the standards working group
  • Conflicts policies for the CIRM staff

It is impossible to tell whether the matters will be voted on, amended, written, proposed or merely discussed at the meeting. In fact, it is next to impossible to determine their specific nature.

For example, a report to be considered from the grants subcommittee, which is a key group for dispensing hundreds of millions of dollars, is not available online. Nor are either of the latest versions of the conflicts policies. Last month, a draft of the conflicts policy for the oversight committee was available online, but it is unclear whether that document is the one to be discussed or whether it has been altered.

As for the staff conflict policy, the oversight committee approved a “statement of incompatible activities” at the last meeting. It is unclear whether that is up for amendment or reconsideration or whether entirely new restrictions are up for approval.

While the lack of information is troubling for members of the public, it is even more so for members of the committee, busy people who have other issues before them besides the stem cell agency. If they do not have sufficient time in advance of the meeting to read background material and reports, it makes it difficult for them do their jobs properly.

As for the public and other interested parties, it is nearly impossible to make informed comments to the agency during its three-minute comment periods unless background material or texts of proposals are provided in advance. Most of the matters the agency is dealing with are complex and deserve careful thought as opposed to something generated on-the-fly at a busy meeting.

Chairman Robert Klein has promised the highest and best standards for the stem cell agency. However, even local school districts in California do a better job of making background material available to the public in advance of meetings.

The stem cell agency is still young and understaffed, but there is no doubt that it can do a better job at maintaining openness.


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