Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nature Warns of Sunburn; UC Davis Scientist Warns of Hidden Agendas

Amidst the hoopla about the latest research giveaway by the California stem cell agency, a couple of news items popped up that dealt with openness and conflicts of interests.

Last week Nature magazine editorialized that CIRM was amply open. And on Sunday, the agency itself disputed a Sacramento Bee editorial that suggested CIRM is "on thin legal ice" because it does not require its grant reviewers to publicly disclose their financial interests. But first the Nature editorial, which ironically is not accessible to the general public. It says, among other things,
"Calls for yet more openness may be well intentioned, but they threaten to override the element of confidentiality that is inherent to fair peer review, and to undercut the agency’s mission of supporting cutting-edge research from the best Californian scientists. There comes a point at which yet more sunshine leads to sunburn."
Nature also said that requiring identification of those who do not receive grants
"...would be akin to the state of California publicly releasing information on all the job applications it receives, complete with adverse comments made during the hiring process. "
We could not disagree more. Seeking millions of dollars in state funds with no promise of economic return, which is what the research grants are all about, is fundamentally different than applying for a position as a state park ranger.

Stuart Leavenworth, an associate editor at The Sacramento Bee, noted in an email to the California Stem Cell Report that the magazine's position did not surprise him "given that Nature has steadfastly refused to disclose the conflicts of interest of its authors, unlike other journals." He pointed to statements by the Center in the Public Interest and more than 30 scientists that Nature does not "reliably" disclose its authors' financial ties to drug and biotechnology companies.

The Nature editorial also surfaced on the "egghead" blog at UC Davis.
Jonathan Eisen, a professor at the UC Davis Genome Center, said, in part:
"While I can see (Nature's) points, I am not sure they are the most objective place to look for for ideas on this issue. The question to me is not whether too much sunshine MIGHT cause sunburn it is whether just the risk of sunburn is worth keeping things closed. I think in this case I probably agree that the review of these proposals might be changed if it were an open review system. But as someone who has served on many grant review panels, I know that there are ALL sorts of hidden agendas that play out in the review. If review were completely open, at least these hidden agendas would be exposed to the world. Yes, some reviewers might be too timid in their reviews, but this openness would eliminate so many other problems inherent in anonymous review. This is why there are a few journals out there that now have open review of papers — something I think is certainly worth testing out."
Dale Carlson, chief communications officer for CIRM, wrote the op-ed piece that challenged The Bee's position. He said that grants are not in jeopardy and that two courts have upheld the legality of CIRM's actions. Carlson referred to lawsuits that that have unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the agency.

With all due respect, we suggest that the key issue has not been fully litigated. At the time of the trial cited by Carlson, CIRM had only made a small number of grants. A track record simply did not exist on whether the grant reviewers were making de facto decisions. There is no doubt, however, that the Oversight Committee has final authority on making grants.

The fundamental question about public disclosure of the financial interests of the grant reviewers concerns good public policy and openness. Should the public should be allowed to know the financial interests of those who recommend that millions of public dollars be handed out to scientists? Along with that goes the question of whether the public should be allowed to know the names of persons and institutions seeking millions of dollars in research grants.

Our position is that the interests of the science community come after the interests of the public. Unwarranted secrecy in the grant-making process only feeds suspicion and creates the possibility of insider dealings, which are not likely to be healthy for science or stem cell cures. As Eisen notes above, hidden agendas can often come into play.

(Editor's note: If you are interested in the full text of the Nature editorial, please send us a note at Sphere: Related Content


  1. What most astonishes me about those saying reviews of grants and scientific papers should be done in a closed manner is that these are the same people that say that the power of Science comes from the process whereby claims are tested and retested by others. That is, the power of science comes from its openness. As I said in the Davis Egghead blog, I realize there are some benefits to doing things anonymously or in a closed manner. But this should not be the default. This should only be done if those benefits outweigh the risks. And the risks and problems of being closed are great. I do not know ANYTHING about this particular case, so it is certainly possible that there are reasons to do this in a closed manner (e.g., reviewers might fear retribution by people who have had papers or grants rejected). But we need to turn the whole system around such that one only does this if one can really show it is necessary (one could say that representatives in congress might fear retribution for their Votes, but thankfully, almost all voting is done in the Open).

  2. And to add to this ... I repeat, I have not looked at the Stem Cell grant system at all but on first glance they seem MORE open than most other review systems. In fact, I know of few places that publish reviews of grants. I realize some want more Openness (which as I have said is usually a good thing) but I think they deserve some credit for posting the reviews.