Monday, January 14, 2008

Zipped Lips and CIRM's $263 Million

A glittering array of 29 scientists and executives rule California's prodigious $3 billion stem cell research effort. In many ways, they constitute some of the finest minds in the business and have even included Nobel Prize winners.

The thinking was that this elite panel of experts could bring their knowledge and wisdom to bear on the world's largest funding effort for human embryonic stem cell research. But this week, many of them will remain mum as $263 million worth of decisions are made.

The group is formally known as the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee(ICOC). More commonly, it would be described as a board of directors for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM). On Wednesday and Thursday, the committee will make critical, initial decisions on handing out $263 million for lab construction at the Golden State's finest research institutions. But only about one out of three of the directors will be able to vote on or even discuss some of the key issues in what is the largest round of grants ever made by CIRM.

The reason? They are associated with institutions that are seeking big chunks of the $263 million jackpot. In many cases they have conflicts of interests that CIRM's attorneys say make it illegal for them to vote or even participate in debate.

The impact goes well beyond silencing most of the board on some matters. It could also create a "quartet majority" in which the votes of four persons could be all that is needed to take some actions. Here is how it could happen, based on Prop. 71, which created CIRM, and an explanation last August from Tamar Pachter, CIRM general counsel.

The strange situation stems from the requirement that many of the Oversight Committee members -- by Prop. 71 decree -- must come from institutions that stand to benefit from CIRM's largess. They include deans of medical schools and executives at the University of California and other academic and research institutions. In fact, of the 12 lab grant applicants that CIRM has publicly identified, 11 have one or more members on the ICOC.

Last summer Pachter told board members that when the time comes to allocate the $263 million into various "buckets" – parcelled out, in other words, into such categories of competition such as "CIRM institutes" and "CIRM centers of exellence" – only about 10 members of the ICOC would not have conflicts of interest. She said,

"They are members who work for for-profits, patient advocates who are unaffiliated with institutions who will be applying for funds. That's it."

She did not spell out the ultimate implications. But Prop. 71 uses the number of ICOC members eligible to vote as the basis for a quorum, rather than the total number of persons on the ICOC. Prop. 71 also states that a quorum is 65 percent of those eligible to vote. Action can be taken by a majority of a quorum. So when 10 persons are eligible to vote, the quorum is seven. A majority would be only four – a fact not directly discussed at the August ICOC meeting.

But Oswald Steward(see photo), chairman of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, is one ICOC member who was disturbed by impact of what Pachter had to say. He acknowledged the importance of the conflict of interest rules. But he added,
"A lot of us are going to be left out...It's not just the case we can't vote; we also can't even participate in the discussions. And I think that narrows the field of expertise in a way that is unfortunate."
The ICOC ran afoul of this problem in December when it approved adding $35 million to the lab grant program. Only eight persons on the board were permitted to participate in the debate on that proposal.

The "quartet majority" problem also leads to some interesting speculation about whether it could come into play in connection with the attempt by Childrens Hospital Oakland Research Institute to overturn an unfavorable decision by the Grants Working Group on its lab grant application.

Could the Oakland hospital's bid be approved by only four members of the ICOC? One could argue that ICOC members associated with institutions with competing grants could not vote on Oakland's request because it could affect the amount of funding available for their institutions. But before the Oakland bid can come to a vote, a member of the ICOC has to make a motion to approve it. Then Oakland has to line up three other sympathetic board members.

But it certainly is something that folks in Oakland could be thinking about as well as at the University of California at Riverside and Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, two other rejected applicants. Sphere: Related Content

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