Friday, April 25, 2008

Were Some Scientists' Concerns about CIRM's Claims Worthy of Note?

If the California stem cell agency had its druthers, no one would know that there is a dissenting view about its role in the San Diego research that led to clinical trials on a treatment for a blood disorder.

The $3 billion agency has stoutly defended its claim and bolstered its statement with additional evidence, following questions by the California Stem Cell Report.

However, the agency would have preferred that no complaints were publicly raised and nothing written about them if they were.

We first reported the matter on April 15. We are writing today not to rehash the substance of the complaints, but to share with our readers some of the reasoning behind our decision to report the story and to discuss a few of the nuances of how the media work.

CIRM's position is that our item concerning CIRM's original statement relied on a single, anonymous source and would not have been carried by most newspapers. They are partially correct on that point. We did use one anonymous source – "at least one well-regarded, California stem cell researcher" was the phrasing. We had two, but the other one did not go into the details of the issue. We did not want to characterize both as having identical positions. The item also referred to "concerns among some stem cell scientists." But because of the use of a single, anonymous source, many newspapers would not have carried the story as matter of policy.

Anonymous sources usually have an agenda, sometimes one that is hard to detect. Anonymity protects the source from having to take public responsibility for his or her words. We weighed the possibility of not writing about the concerns of these scientists, but decided to proceed.

The scientists' position was supported by evidence; it was not just one person's opinion. If these two were concerned, undoubtedly many others were as well. There is an axiom in business that for every one complaining customer, nine more exist who are unhappy but who are silent. That axiom seems to apply in this case. Finally, California researchers are loath to publicly criticize CIRM. Who wants to offend the three-billion-pound gorilla and risk losing its financial support?

The question appeared significant as a part of the culture of science. It dealt with the credibility of the agency. CIRM's role was regarded as so important that it merited enthusiastic comment from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a move presumably promoted by CIRM. The issue also went to the more general question of hype involving embryonic stem cell research. The agency itself, stem cell research advocates and opponents all have warned repeatedly about dangers of exaggeration and promising too much in this highly charged field.

Since the story has appeared, we have learned of more scientists who agree with the essential points made by our sources.

One said,
"The problem with the original CIRM (statement) is that it referred to the SEED grant, which was funded only weeks before the paper was submitted and dealt with an entirely different disease and... was specified by the RFA to be specifically for human embryonic stem cells which are not at all involved in the UCSD experiments....

"They (CIRM) did overstate it and ... it is embarrassing that the Governor's office picked this up as a first example of CIRM's success. It would have been much better to say that CIRM is proud to be associated with such an outstanding success and to feature something about the trainee."
Another said,
"It does all of us a disservice to pretend that CIRM was responsible for the initiation of a clinical trial when every scientist and biotech manager knows that it is simply untrue."
As mentioned earlier, many newspapers would not have carried the story because of policies regarding the use of anonymous sources. Over decades of experience as a newspaper editor and reporter, we have seen those policies, along with others, paralyze newspapers. They know a story is factually accurate, but because people are afraid to speak up and the subjects of stories stonewall and delay, the stories never run. As a result, the public debate suffers. In the case of the CIRM statement, however, the story would not have reached that level. The subject would not have been pursued by mainstream newspapers because it would have have been deemed too arcane and picayune for the general public. However, the issues raised by our sources are important to our tiny, but deeply involved band of readers, who range from Korea to the United Kingdom.

The California Stem Cell Report is a blog and fundamentally a matter of the opinion of yours truly. Many blogs are nothing more than opinion. Over the years, however, we have taken to reporting stem cell news in a more traditional fashion because of the lack of hard information in the media about CIRM affairs. We have also engaged in analysis and commented negatively and positively about how CIRM is spending $3 billion of public money, virtually free from normal governmental oversight. It is a unique endeavor that has had a far-reaching and positive impact on the national and international stem cell scene.

We think California's unprecedented program is worthy of considerable attention. We will continue to offer a home to those who are willing to make thoughtful comments on its performance – even anonymously.

(We provided an advance copy of this commentary to CIRM and told the agency that we would carry its comments verbatim, if it chooses to offer any. Providing advance copies of articles and offering opportunities for verbatim responses are virtually unheard in the mainstream media.) Sphere: Related Content


  1. I am curious about the journalistic ethics dimensions of text surrounding -- But because of the use of a single, anonymous source, many newspapers would not have carried the story as matter of policy. -- In some earlier posts on californiastemcellreport (for example 17 March 08, with comments on 19 March 08), there was discussion of the reliance by californiastemcellreport on a single, not anonymous, source, which seemed to convey false information to the effect that Yamanaka accepted a state [CIRM] grant in August 2007. Are you suggesting that a journalist may properly rely, without verification, on a single, not anonymous, source, and, when challenged, direct the reader to that single, not anonymous source? This sort of deflection has been a problematic area with "cite checking" in law journals, wherein a student cite checker merely checks the cited material is present in the earlier work, not whether the earlier work is accurate. Thus, all published errors in history become fair game for re-telling, with impunity. You seem to suggest journalists play by the same rules as law review cite checkers. True?

    See also

    Semantic ramblings on the meaning of "accept"

  2. Thanks for your comment, Larry. I can't speak to the law journal question. I am not familiar with their practices. However, newspapers print falsehoods or dubious assertions on a daily basis. They are contained in material provided by government officials, attorneys, public relations people, letters to the editor, etc. Most of the time the material is in quotes but not always. As a practical matter, it is not possible for the media to check every single assertion made by persons quoted in stories. Just as it is impossible for me to check every assertion made by persons who comment on this blog, nor is it possible for you, Larry, to check claims made on your blog by others. The persons making those assertions have to take to primary responsibility for them.