Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Strong Interest in $41 Million CIRM Faculty Award Program

The California stem cell agency's effort to boost "young" researchers with grants of up to $2 million has attracted 55 letters of intent, nearly as many as the first round of program last year.

The faculty awards are designed to develop relatively young and promising researchers and particularly physician-scientists at a critical stage in their careers – providing them with salary and research funding for three to five years.

The $41 million grant program comes on top of a similar program last year that drew 59 letters of intent. Ultimately, the agency gave away only $54 million to 22 researchers out of the $85 million allotted in 2007. The grants were curtailed because five CIRM directors violated the agency's conflict-of-interest policies by writing letters on behalf of applicants from their institutions.

CIRM said the letters resulted from an "innocent misunderstanding." CIRM disqualified the 10 applications involved. The directors involved suffered no CIRM penalty, although some reportedly took steps to ease the economic or professional pain of applicants who were affected.

In December, CIRM directors ordered up a second round of faculty awards in order to give another chance to applicants disqualified last year because of their deans' conflict violations.

The names of the institutions and researchers submitting letters of intent this month were not disclosed by CIRM, which keeps them secret. Only the winning applicants names are released and then only after they are approved for funding.

In response to a query, Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM, released the number of intent letters and said 31 institutions were represented. He did not provide a breakdown for numbers from academic institutions and nonprofit research organizations.

CIRM has directed applicants in the second round not to disclose whether they competed in the first. Disclosing such information in this round could mean disqualification of the applicant.

Grant reviewers, however, are not likely to have too much trouble identifying applicants who are making their second run – unless their latest applications are totally different than the first or the reviewers' memories are faulty.

Fourteen grants are expected to be approved this summer following a closed-door review of the applications by the same CIRM panel that reviewed the first round of the grants. Scientists on that panel do not have to publicly disclose their financial or professional interests. Instead their disclosures are made privately to CIRM.

The application deadline is April 3, although no one can apply unless a letter of intent has already been sent. Sphere: Related Content


  1. Anonymous9:39 AM

    This is partially a comment, but also some questions for you, David.

    Why no press release from CIRM on this second round of new faculty award letters of intent now almost two weeks after the letters of intent were due? This is unprecedented for CIRM. For the last New Fac. Award, they had a press release 1 day after the letters of intent were due, and for essentially all awards, they have had press releases within a couple days of letter intent or other deadlines.

    Is there some back story to this related to the problems with the first New Fac Awards? Is CIRM somehow handling these differently? For example are they more throughly screening them for problems or administrative issues at this early stage?

    Or could it be simply that they are just super busy and preoccupied with the huge lab grant construction program so that it is taking precedence?

    What gives? David, what do you think?

  2. I do not have answers to all the questions that you raise. Nor are the answers likely to be forthcoming from CIRM. I am inclined to subscribe the simplest answer: Someone simply forgot that such events (letters of intent) are opportunities for CIRM to tell a positive story about how its work continues to do good and attract significant scientific interest. The reasons for not issuing a press release could also include a combination of all the questions raised by Anonymous. You could additionally throw into the mix the fact that CIRM has relatively new management, which could be hard-pressed to get up to speed.
    And you could throw in the possibility that CIRM is hunkering down to avoid any sort of reference to matters that have gone awry in the past. However, it would be a mistake to conjure up far-reaching failures in this matter. It is one, relatively small event.