Directors of the California stem cell agency last week virtually rubber-stamped the actions of its scientific grant reviewers, going along with them on 92 percent of the applications for $54 million.
The Oversight Committee discussed only nine of the grants, the ones reviewers said were recommended for funding if money was available. Five of those were approved by the committee. It ratified decisions on another 39 with zero debate. None of the committee's actions reversed a decision by the reviewers to deny or approve outright a grant application.
This pattern lies at the heart of whether the scientific grant reviewers, who make the critical decisions on requests for hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, should be required to disclose publicly their financial interests. After spending months examining CIRM earlier this year, Elaine Howle(see photo), California's state auditor, recommended that the agency seek an attorney general's opinion about whether reviewers should publicly disclose their economic interests.
The agency rejected the suggestion. Interim CIRM President Richard Murphy last summer wrote the auditor that she was raising a "hypothetical" point. He said,
"...(T)he recommendations of the CIRM working groups have never been routinely and/or regularly adopted by the ICOC...."CIRM has not published its analysis of the grant approval patterns, but our experience indicates that it is close to last week's 92 percent rate.
The power and importance of the grant reviewers were further reinforced last Friday when CIRM disclosed for the first time the identities of 12 applicants for $263 million in lab construction grants. The unusual release of information came more than a month before the grants are scheduled to be approved by the Oversight Committee. CIRM said the 12 were "recommended" for funding by the scientific grant reviewers. The agency said it was releasing their names because it would assist in end-of-the-year fund-raising for matching monies that are critical to the grant application.
Significantly, the names on the five applications rejected by the reviewers were not disclosed. CIRM says it does not disclose the names of the institutions for fear of embarrassing them. But the anointment of the 12 and the release of their names makes it virtually impossible for the non-anointed to make a renewed effort for funding, although by CIRM's official lights, the game is far from over. But how can the supposedly "semi-rejected" possibly muster the critical matching funds minus CIRM's endorsement on Friday? How can they go public with complaints about the fairness of the process? One does not want to antagonize a $3 billion gorilla that controls the lifeblood of research. One can only imagine the frustration at those institutions about how this has been handled.
Under Prop. 71, the Oversight Committee has final legal authority to approve or reject grants. We have long contended that reviewers are making de facto decisions on the grants as they did in last week's case of the $54 million in faculty awards. All of which is not unusual. That is why an agency such as CIRM has expert reviewers. They should know the science best.
The Oversight Committee is also hobbled if it wants to act independently of the reviewer decisions. The panel not only cannot see the entire application for the grant, it does not know the names of the institutions or the researchers involved. The committee is given only summaries that do not identify even whether the researcher is male or female. (However, a knowledgeable person can often determine the names of the institutions and sometimes the researcher by a careful reading of the summaries.)
Currently the reviewers disclose their economic and professional interests to CIRM, which says it will review them be sure no breaches of ethics or law occur. But neither the public nor applicants have any way to ascertain for themselves whether conflicts do in fact occur, other than trusting the tiny CIRM staff to diligently examine the secret documents.
CIRM contends it will lose reviewers if they are compelled to disclose publicly. We concede that a few may leave, but as new CIRM President Alan Trounson has noted, California is hottest spot in the world for stem cell research. A researcher who gives up an inside seat at that table would be giving up a lot.
The scientific reviewers are in fact making the overwhelming majority of decisions on grants being handed out here in California by what is the world's largest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Given CIRM's on-going issues with conflicts-of-interest, it is past time for the agency to publicly disclose the economic interests of its reviewers.