Sunday, June 05, 2005

Is CIRM Truly Transparent?

Count the reasons why the California stem cell agency should be more open to the public. There are 75,027 of them.

At least that's a start.

Take 27 of them first. The agency noted with some pride last week that 27 California institutions have expressed an interest in an important training grant program to create a cadre of stem cell researchers. Most of them are undoubtedly public or nonprofit universities, colleges or nonprofit organizations, such as the Salk Institute.

But will California taxpayers ever learn the identity of these institutions, except for the handful ultimately selected? Not according to CIRM, which rebuffed a request for their identities because the grants are ostensibly being handled by a "working group." Those are entities linked to CIRM but whose records are closed to public view.

This is a level of secrecy that exceeds that of the California's governor's office. For example, the governor's daily schedule is a public record. We can learn who he met with and the subject of meetings. Not so with working groups, apparently.

The names of the 27 institutions are a relatively minor matter, but one wonders what other information is or will be cloaked in secrecy, despite the promises by the agency to set the highest standards of openness and transparency.

Now for the 75,000 other reasons. That is the national number of "expert clinicians and researchers (who) now consult for hedge funds, stock analysts, venture capitalists or other sophisticated investors." So reports a study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which was critical of the practice.

"That's up from 15,000 doctors who consulted in 2002, and fewer than 1,000 in 1996," wrote reporter Luke Timmerman in the Seattle Times, in a piece about the study. That amounts to one in 10 physicians nationwide.

While the study did not deal directly with stem cell research, it indicated the growing scope of the problem of ethical behavior involving medical affairs and research. Critics of the stem cell agency want broader public disclosure of the financial interests of key personnel. "But that's not the way it has always been done" is the thrust of CIRM's position. More aggressive disclosure will drive scientists away from the $3 billion research pool, CIRM contends.

Times have changed, however, as the AMA article points out. In less than 10 years, tens of thousands of physicians have begun to engage in activities that the editor of the AMA Journal now finds "hard to believe."

The AMA article dealt primarily with the private sector. CIRM is handling public money. While there is clearly a need for protection of proprietary information, personnel matters and other such information, the public deserves more, rather than less disclosure of CIRM's most sensitive workings. Sphere: Related Content

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