Sunday, September 02, 2007

New CIRM Director, Salk, UC San Diego, Coziness and Much More

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies seems to be doing well in connection with the $3 billion stem cell agency. So is the University of California campus in San Diego.

At least so it appears from the latest appointment to the 29-member Oversight Committee that serves as the board of directors for CIRM. On Friday (Aug. 31), Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi announced that he had named Marsha Chandler to the committee as one of four executive officers from a California research organization who sit on the panel.

Chandler is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Ca., a job she has held since July 1. That was the date when Richard Murphy retired both as president of Salk, which is a $100 million-a-year enterprise, and from the CIRM Oversight Committee. Early in August, Murphy was hired for six months by the Oversight Committee to serve as the interim president of CIRM. Murphy has said he will not participate in any matters affecting Salk. Chandler was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Murphy's departure from the Oversight Committee.

Prior to joining Salk, Chandler was the No. 2 executive at the UC San Diego campus. The dean of the medical school there, David Brenner, also serves on the Oversight Committee.

The Oversight Committee awards research and lab construction grants to academic institutions such as the University of California and non-profit institutions such as Salk. The committee also sets the rules and standards for awarding the grants. Oversight Committee members are barred by law, however, from voting directly on grants to institutions in which they have economic ties.

So far UC San Diego has received $14.8 million in CIRM grants. Salk has received $6.6 million.

Similar relationships exist involving CIRM and other UC campuses, other universities and other nonprofits, and it all appears suspiciously cozy to many outsiders. But there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, the links between the persons who control the $3 billion in taxpayer funds and the beneficiaries of that largess virtually demand that the Oversight Committee and CIRM operate with more openness and transparency than most other state agencies or the NIH. Those entities are subject to executive and legislative controls from which CIRM is constitutionally exempt. The stem cell institute, however, has been reluctant at times to make its operations totally transparent. For example, it refuses to disclose the names of public or private universities or research organizations that seek grants until after the grants are approved, which makes it impossible for the public or other interested parties to comment.

Chandler's academic background is in political science, but she has been a university administrator for nearly 20 years. At Salk she fills a newly created position, one aimed at giving Salk's yet-to-be-named, new president more time for scientific work. Ironically, CIRM cannot easily make similar executive management changes because its executive structure is locked in state law that, for all practical purposes, is impossible to change. Chalk that up to the drafters of Prop. 71, the ballot initiative that created CIRM. For readers not familiar with California law, an initiative is drafted by private individuals, usually in secret and outside of the legislative process. We have never seen a list of all the persons involved in drafting the language of Prop. 71, but California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein takes credit for writing most of it.

A check of news sources shows that Chandler has not made headlines in San Diego, although her name surfaced along with many others in stories about the UC executive pay flap and a piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the UC housing assistance program. Ironically, CIRM is barred by law from offering such housing assistance in its search for a new, permanent president.

Two vacancies still exist on the Oversight Committee, and it is not known when they will be filled.

(An appeal to readers: If you know of the names of individuals who participated in writing Prop. 71, please send their names along to the California Stem Cell Report – djensen@californiastemcellreport.com. Or you can just post them anonymously, if necessary, by clicking on the word "comments" below.) Sphere: Related Content

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