Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Conflicts, Grants and CIRM Overseers: Openness vs. Fairness

Eighteen months ago, when the California stem cell agency awarded its first grants, members of the Oversight Committee were provided a conflict-of-interest list prior to voting on the grants.

The transcript of the meeting does not make clear exactly what was on that list. Did each member of the committee have a list that showed each grant along with each member of the committee who was barred from voting on that grant? Unknown, based on the transcript.

Last week we asked CIRM for a copy of the conflict-of-interest list for this week's first-ever research grant awards. The information is an important part of understanding the discussion of the grants – who stands to benefit and who stands to lose. It is information that helps give the public and interested parties insight into the process. As we have pointed out, the Oversight Committee has built-in conflicts-of-interest, albeit ones that are legal as the result of voter approval of Prop. 71.

So far the agency has not produced publicly a conflict-of-interest list for Thursday's meeting, but says it will be available before the session. Dale Carlson, spokesman for CIRM, differed sharply with our suggestion in an email to him that CIRM was withholding the list. Here is his response to our continued questions concerning the availability of the list. Carlson's statement provides some insight into the thinking at the agency concerning openness vs. the integrity of the grant review process.
“To the best of our collective recollection, the ICOC members received (in 2005) a list of training grant applications for which they were recused. They did not see which applications their colleagues would be recused from discussing or voting on.

"We are working on a list of potential conflicts each ICOC member might face with each SEED grant application. With 29 members and 231 applications, I'm sure you can appreciate that it is neither a quick nor easy task to evaluate all the statements of economic interest, institutional affiliations, past and current collaborative efforts, etc. Indeed, it is enormously complex. An NIH study section doesn't review 200 applications over the course of a year. We're doing so in but a matter of hours.

"Contrary to your assertion, it is not being withheld. It is simply not finished. We are being extremely diligent. It would be a disservice to the public to provide a document that is incomplete and/or inaccurate. It will be made available when it is finished and in advance of the meeting.

"Given the efforts we have made to ensure each application is judged on its scientific merit, without regard to the affiliations of researchers, there is legitimate concern that disclosing the ICOC members' conflicts may lead some to attempt to ascertain the institutional source of each application. We do not wish to see institutional bias injected into the review process, tarnishing the integrity we have established. Nevertheless, in the interest of transparency, we will assume that risk.

"Finally, no agency in California has ever undertaken so ambitious a program for biomedical research. We are working without a model and without precedent. We have disclosed more information about grant applications and grant reviews than any other California or federal agency, and more than any non-profit grant-making entity.

"We are moving with all deliberate speed to put funds into the hands of scientists, clinicians, and other researchers who can turn stem cells into therapies and cures. We are moving to implement the mandate of seven million California voters. But we will not allow urgency to trump fundamental fairness or the obligation to do what is right. If those objectives require a little additional time, so be it.”
Sphere: Related Content

No comments:

Post a Comment