Friday, September 22, 2006

Secrecy Broken on CIRM Grant Applicants

The secrecy surrounding the names of the scientists seeking $100 million in grants from the California stem cell aency has been breached by a nationally known researcher who works for one of the directors of CIRM itself.

One watchdog group says the breach is an attempt to manipulate the grant-making process. The California stem cell agency imposes the secrecy on names of scientists and institutions seeking grants to further what it believes is the public interest, to encourage the best science and to eliminate potential bias and conflicts of interest.

But, earlier this week, Hans Kierstead, a stem cell researcher who has been featured on the "60 Minutes" CBS TV program, told the Orange County Register that UC Irvine will be seeking more than $28 million out of the $100 million available. Reporter Gary Robbins said that UCI wanted to become "the West Coast mecca" of stem cell research.

Kierstead is an associate professor at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine. The director of the center is Oswald Steward, who is also one of the 29 directors of the California stem cell agency. Also sitting on the Oversight Committee for CIRM is Susan Bryant, dean of the School of Biological Sciences at Irvine.

The Oversight Committee ultimately decides which scientists and insitutions receive grants. But Steward and Bryant would be barred from voting on a proposal from UC Irvine.

CIRM has declined to comment on the disclosure of the confidential information by Kierstead. We have asked UCI for comment, and will carry it if and when we receive. We also asked the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights of Santa Monica, Ca., one of the CIRM watchdog groups, for a comment. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the group, replied:

"Reports from UC Irvine that the institution is seeking $26 million in Prop. 71 stem cell funds demonstrates an attempt to manipulate an award system shrouded in secrecy.

"In essence we've got one institution, which has two members on the stem cell oversight committee by the way, publicly staking out a claim on a quarter of the money to be awarded in the first round of research grants. UC Irvine has launched a campaign and is trying to build a bandwagon effect.

"The taxpayers who are putting up the $6 billion to fund stem cell research would be far better served if CIRM released the entire list of 350 who have expressed an intent to ask for money, how much each wants and with what institution they are affiliated.

"As it now stands CIRM will keep the big picture under wraps and institutions will leak information in dribs and drabs as it suits their own agendas. And as we have seen all too frequently in the last year, the UCs regularly act first in their own interests and not in those of Californians at large.

"Bottom line: It's the taxpayers money. We should learn directly from CIRM who wants it and why. And it should be available at one time, not piecemeal."

Earlier the California Stem Cell Report asked CIRM for names of the scientists and institutions, but was rebuffed by the agency. Here is part of its response:
"California law allows an agency to withhold certain information when the public interest in doing so outweighs the interest in disclosure. In this case, the public benefits more when the application pool for grants is as large and robust as possible, and the review process for those applications is as free of potential bias and conflicts of interest as possible.

"In light of the nature of the scientific profession, where reputation is the currency of the realm, ensuring confidentiality of applicants encourages the broadest range of research that may be funded, because applicants will not risk embarrassment or humiliation by being identified with a particular score or outcome if they are not funded. Novel or trend-setting research proposals are more likely to be submitted, and the public is thereby more likely to see the research and the field advance."
CIRM continued:
"Finally, confidentially ensures that the ICOC review process is conducted 'blind,' such that ICOC members are unaware of the identities of applicants, thus ensuring that conflicts of interest are avoided. Publicizing the names of the applicants would subvert this process and undermine the policies underlying it."
Given CIRM's inability to enforce confidentiality or secrecy, it would seem in its own best interest to level the playing field and minimize the ability of big players to exploit weaknesses in the system. One wonders about the reaction of a less well known stem cell scientist to the publicity move by Kierstead. Is that scientist going to have more or less confidence in the CIRM grant-making process? Is he or she going to be more or less likely to submit a grant? Will he or she be more or less inclined to play by rules that CIRM cannot enforce?

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4 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:30 PM

    The California Stem Cell Report and Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights are being hypocritical concerning Public information on the grant seekers. UCI releases all the information you want: the institution, the PI, and the amount of the grant sought. Now you criticize UCI for releasing the information. Do you want the information or not? Or, its this just your attempt to stir the pot?

    The only way the Public is going to get the information you desire is for the individual institutions to release the information. CIRM will never release the information nor should they. Show me where another government granting agency releases this information for all submitted grant proposals. California SeaGrant does not. NIH does not. SBIR does not.

    Be Happy when you get what you want.

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  2. Thanks for your comment on the UCI item. However, the California Stem Cell Report did not ask for the release of information about ONE applicant. It asked for them all. Obviously selective disclosure can create problems. Beyond that, it is fair to assume that most of the major research institutions in the state will be seeking funds.

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