Thursday, October 25, 2007

Secrecy: A Recipe for Scandal

Seventeen California universities and research institutions have applied to the California stem cell agency for $227 million to build major new labs throughout the state.

It is single biggest round of grants in CIRM's short life.

As usual, CIRM refuses to release the names of the applicants, making it difficult for the public to comment, support or express reservations on the grants during the most critical stage of reviews. However, it is fair to say that any institution with a significant stem cell research presence will have applied along with those who are seeking to build that capacity. It is also fair to say that public disclosure of names of grant applicants, prior to formal review, would have avoided the flap earlier this year about a $2.6 million grant to CHA RMI in Los Angeles.

In the case of the lab grants, applicants are certain to include nearly all the University of California campuses, Stanford, USC and the San Diego stem cell consortium, which includes Salk, Scripps and Burnham in addition to UC San Diego.

So if you readers have any reservations about the ability of those institutions to make good use of a $20 million or so lab grant, you can email or write CIRM, whose web site -- -- carries all the contact information.

Earlier this week, the California Stem Cell Report and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights appealed to the agency to reconsider its secrecy policies in connection with the use of $227 million in taxpayer funds. No, was CIRM's response.

The secrecy policies, however, fly in the face of the spirit if not the letter of the California Constitution, which states that the people of the state have a "broadly construed" right to access to information involving the public's business. The amendment to the constitution was approved by 83 percent of voters in 2004. That was the same year voters approved creation of the stem cell agency by only 59 percent.

CIRM is an agency controlled by a 29-person board that is riddled with conflicts of interest. Ultimately it is in the agency's own best interests to operate with more openness. Handing out hundreds of millions of dollars behind closed doors with no public disclosure of the conflicts involving reviewers is a recipe for scandal.

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