Friday, April 28, 2006

Leveraging a $3 Billion Stem Cell Giveaway

California stem cell President Zach Hall and his troops Monday formally begin a seven-month slog in search of a plan on how to give away $3 billion.

Along the way, they plan to spend something close to $500,000 with advice from a star-studded committee, including two Nobel laureates. Their goal is come up with a proposal for the Oversight Committee on how to best leverage California's stem cell investment. That panel will hear reports on the progress of the effort several times, making changes, giving direction and revising along the way before it makes the final judgment on the effort in December.

Stem cell chairman Robert Klein earlier summarized some of the issues at stake:
"Do we want to focus...our portfolio into high risk ventures for major breakthroughs? Do we want to focus (on) goldplated research that will help us incrementally in advancing existing therapies? Do we want, in terms of values, to have a diversification with many grants distributed broadly over large areas of disease research? Or do we want a number of blockbuster grants with high collaboration, focusing and drawing most of the money together?"
The strategic planning effort is not without controversy. Oversight Committee members spent hours haggling over the process in December. It triggered a tussle at another meeting in February. More contentiousness is likely.

At the Oversight Committee meeting in April, members probed the justification for the involvement of Pricewaterhousecooper as consultants in the process at a cost that could run as high as $250,000(original estimates from the firm ran as high as $550,000). Hall said the firm's help was needed to provide planning support, personnel and speed.

Oversight Committee member Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis Medical School, said,
"If you thought about hiring the personnel to do all of this, if you think about the costs of the public meetings, if you think about the urgency that we have to do this, I think my bottom conclusion is that it would be irresponsible not to do this starting today and with excellent facilitation. So remember, this is $500,000 to decide from scratch how we're going to spend $3 billion. and to me that's an appropriate investment."
Hall and Klein promised plenty of public access in the process. Hall said developments would be posted regularly on CIRM's Web site. However, that effort began shakily with a cryptic agenda item for the Monday session that offered meager fodder for those who might be considering testifying at the session or even sending a statement to CIRM. However, if you want to dig into the process of the strategic plan, you can read what Hall and others have to say about it in the transcript from the April Oversight Committee meeting beginning on page 15. Discussion of the Pricewaterhousecooper contract begins on page 78. You can see more about the plan in a report by Hall. Even more can be found in the March transcript of the Governance Subcommittee beginning on page 94. Also retrievable is the report on the agency's scientific conference last fall that will serve as a key reference during planning.

Aside from the roughly $250,000 for Pricewaterhousecooper, much of the rest of the estimated $500,000 for the plan will go for meetings. Hall has noted that Oversight Committee meetings average about $20,000 each. One working group meeting last year cost $55,000.

The advisory committee on the planning process includes David Baltimore and Paul Berg, both Nobel laureates; George Daley, who heads Harvard's stem cell effort; William Rastetter, retired CEO of Biogen Idec, a Massachusetts biotech firm with research facilities in San Diego, Steve Forman of the City of Hope and Oversight Committee members Jeff Sheehy, Sherry Lansing, Ed Penhoet and Klein. Hall is chair of the group, which expects to meet every three to four weeks in public sessions.

Monday's meeting will be in the CIRM headquarters in San Francisco. Remote access is not available. Sphere: Related Content

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