Sunday, April 06, 2008

Millions Cut from CIRM Lab Grant Requests, Millions More Approved

California's unprecedented $758 million stem cell lab construction program completed another chapter this weekend, but fell $48 million short of fulfilling the desires of 12 universities and research institutions.

All of the 12 saw their requests cut by millions as their applications cleared CIRM's Facilities Working Group during a two-day meeting in San Francisco. None was eliminated, however, and none is likely to be eliminated when the grants come up for final action by CIRM directors (the Oversight Committee) May 6 and 7.

CIRM directors have never reversed a recommendation for funding made by their working groups.

The 12 California institutions had sought $336 million from CIRM. The Facilities Working Group approved $289 million, compared to the $262 million budgeted by CIRM. The stem cell lab construction program proposed by applicants totals $832 million, including matching funds. CIRM has proposed funding that would total $758 million, including matching funds.

CIRM said in a news release that the Oversight Committee will address at its May meeting the difference between the $289 million approved this weekend and the $262 million budgeted.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog (formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights), attended the facilities meeting. In an email, he said the main question was how to cut money from the requests.

"At (CIRM President Alan) Trounson's suggestion the FWG (Facilities Working Group) score, which was on a scale of 100, was treated as a percentage, so for example, Stanford with a score of 95 will get 95% percent of its request. Using this method, they cut $47 million.

"Interestingly most of the applicants there seemed to think this could work. Some had been worried that entire programs would be cut."

Some of the cuts were rather large. UCLA saw its $30 million request cut by $8 million. The $50 million request from the San Diego stem cell consortium (UC San Diego, Scripps, Burnham and Salk) request was slashed $7 million. UC Irvine lost more than $7 million out of a $37 million request. (A full list of the applicants, the amounts requested, amounts recommended and total project cost can be found here.)

The Oversight Committee decisions on the funding will ultimately be made by only a handful of its 29 members, perhaps as few as eight or less. The reason is that about 18 of the directors have financial ties to institutions seeking the taxpayer funds. Those directors will be barred by law from even discussing the issue.

The CIRM news release touted the economic benefits of the construction program. Marie Csete, the agency's new chief scientific officer, said the grants will help to build "optimal facilities for our scientists and will extend California's leadership in stem cell science."

As far as we can tell, no mainstream news media carried reports on the weekend action. The agency continues to receive little notice from California newspapers and even less from the electronic media.

The Facilities Group met in public session, as it did on a previous round of lab grants. However, scientific reviews of the programs were conducted behind closed doors by scientific reviewers who do not publicly disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

(Editor's note: Our figures differ slightly from CIRM's. The discrepancies appear to be related to rounding.) Sphere: Related Content

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