CIRM President Zach Hall explains the reasons below in a statement that we received late Wednesday. It is a thoughtful response from a man who is dedicated to the agency's goals and the public good. Nonetheless we disagree with his position. Regular readers are familiar with our stand. Openness in the conduct of the public's business comes first unless compelling and legal reasons exist for confidentiality. When an agency gives away $3 billion in public funds, transparency is paramount.
As an introduction to Hall's statement, we should note that we asked last week for the CIRM conflict-of-interest list, which details which Oversight Committee members will be barred from voting on specific grants because of a legal conflict of interest. The complete list will be provided to the public only after the board makes its decisions, but before each grant is discussed, the names of individual committee members who will be recused will be announced. To understand the full context of this issue, see the previous items on this blog, “Openness,” "Money Machine" and “Shrouded” below. Here is Hall's statement, minus some salutations:
“Just as we were working all-out to prepare for the board meeting, your request arrived. It threw us for a bit of a loop because we had not contemplated such a request; indeed, we had not framed it in the way that you put it. As a result, we have had to think through what we do from a new perspective and to anticipate the ramifications of your request. The first point to make is that we are indeed making such a list – a big task as Dale (Carlson) pointed out – for staff use at the meeting; this work is not yet complete and we do not expect it to be completed until sometime in the morning. Second, we have not given a list like this to anyone outside of CIRM staff before – neither to board members or the public - nor had we contemplated doing so this time.Sphere: Related Content
Two concerns drive our procedures: 1) that we monitor conflict-of-interest carefully and effectively to be sure that board members know when they have a COI and to be sure that they do not participate in the discussion, inadvertently or otherwise; 2) that we focus the discussion and the decision on scientific merit, independent of institution or applicant. At the meeting in September, 2005, when the training grants were approved, each board member received a sheet of paper listing the applications (by number) for which they had a conflict-of-interest. We then made sure that they did not participate in the discussion and their names were not called in a roll call vote. Thus board members did not have information about any recusals but their own.
The process is more daunting this time with 231 applications rather than 26. Each board member will again receive a sheet of paper listing the applications for which they have a COI. Because of the large number of applications and the difficulty of keeping up with the correct application number, we will also announce at the beginning of each discussion, exactly which board members have a conflict of interest. We will do this from a master list that we have made up (are making up), but, as we did before, had not planned to give this list either to board members or to the public. Thus, board members know their own recusals in advance of the discussion, but do not know who is recused from any other application until the discussion on that application begins. We think this is a good procedure.
When you made your request, our initial response was that, although we had not contemplated doing so, there was no reason for us to withhold the information from you when it was ready. On reflection, however, we have realized that if we give a master list to you beforehand, we also have to give to all others, including ICOC members. Passing out the list beforehand will only encourage “decoding” of the lists, as far as can be done, before the discussion to give institutional identifiers to many of the applications before they are reviewed. We believe this is undesirable.
In trying to balance all of these issues, we have decided to follow the procedure outlined above as originally planned, keeping the master list for our own use during the meeting. Those present will hear the announcement, as each application is discussed, of who is recused. After the approvals are completed, we will then make the master list available to you or to anyone else who wishes it.
You would undoubtedly prefer to have it before the meeting, but we believe this is in the best interests of a fair and unbiased proceedings. I apologize for the false start on our part about the procedures that we will follow. This is the first time through for such a large number of grants and we are all scrambling to do the best we can.