Friday, December 07, 2007

Conflict Problems Snag $85 Million CIRM Grant Program

Applications from four California stem cell powerhouses for CIRM research grants that could run as high as $3 million a year could be in jeopardy because of concerns about conflicts of interest.

Reporter Sabin Russell of the San Francisco Chronicle disclosed the problem today in a story about the $85 million faculty award program. The grants are scheduled to be awarded next week at a meeting in Los Angeles.

The universities involved are the University of California campuses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and the University of Southern California. Russell wrote that CIRM may "toss out" the applications because they "included letters of support from deans who also sit on the citizens' board that governs the $3 billion program."

Russell continued,
"Sources close to the grant-making process said that staffers at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine flagged the applications for conflict-of-interest violations, despite a requirement that each request contain a letter of support 'signed by the Dean or Departmental Chair.'"
Russell wrote,
"Although the grant application called for letters of support from the deans or department chairmen, the conflict-of-interest policy for the stem cell institute also specifies that its board members "shall not make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use their official position to influence a decision regarding a grant ...'

"Therefore, schools that followed one set of state instructions may well have violated another set of rules - putting at risk millions of dollars in potential research. Institutions not represented on the board, or that had department heads rather than deans write the support letters, avoided the problem.

"The apparent contradiction in the rulebook is the kind of problem that critics say was built into the stem cell initiative passed by voters in 2004. Concerned about avoiding even the appearance of conflicts of interest, the governing board debated its rules extensively during a meeting in April 2005."
CIRM told Russell that it had no comment on the matter nor did the insitutions.

The Chronicle story said,
"It remains unclear what will happen if the grant applications are rejected. One option, according to sources, is to simply have the four universities reapply at a later date - a delay of at least six months. Another option would be to reject all of the grants and have everyone update their applications because of the confusion regarding the letter-of-recommendation rules."
Russell's story came on the heels of the disclosure on this web site of an improper attempt earlier this year by a CIRM director, John Reed, to influence the awarding of a grant to his own insitution, the Burnham Institute.

Russell also reported that David Serrano Sewell, another director, said that Reed should resign. Sewell said,
"I've given a great deal of thought to this. It has nothing to do with his abilities as a scientist. But his continued presence on our board undermines our ability to do our job."
Earlier Reed said he did not intend to resign. But a Burnham spokeswoman told Russell that he had not made a decision.

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