Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Poppycock and CIRM

The California stem cell agency generates a certain amount of nonsense from time to time.

Some of it comes from CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, including a comment he made to the San Diego Union-Tribune in connection with the upcoming examination of CIRM by a bipartisan good-government panel, the Little Hoover Commission.

Klein has repeatedly referred in the past to the heavy scrutiny that he contends CIRM has endured. Most recently he told reporter Terri Somers:
“It's very important that the (Little Hoover) commission recognize the exhaustive reviews we've already been through and come out of with totally and consistently extraordinarily high marks."
Poppycock, we say.

While Klein thinks CIRM has been subjected to exhaustive and heavy scrutiny, that is hardly the case. He and others who express that view really do not know what heavy scrutiny means. Think Watergate, think the ongoing national financial crisis, think the California/Enron electrical deregulation debacle, think Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, think about television news vans camped outside Klein's home should a scandal erupt at CIRM. Indeed the scrutiny of CIRM does not even go as far as the local government coverage we saw last year in a small town on the Arizona/New Mexico boundary. The local paper published every single payment by the city down to one dollar, along with the name of each recipient. In California, few would even remember the last time a story about the stem cell agency was carried on the evening television news or appeared on the front page of a newspaper.

Klein also refers to the financial audits paid for by CIRM. However, they have an exceedingly limited scope and cover such things as whether Klein provided receipts for his trip expenses and whether a reported purchase of a computer actually can be tracked to a specific computer being used in the CIRM office. Klein has additionally cited the legal challenge to CIRM's existence, which was handily rejected by the courts at every step. That, in fact, covered limited matters as well and was largely bungled by CIRM's legal opponents. The courts did not attempt to assess whether Klein and CIRM were doing their jobs well or whether Prop. 71 was useful to the people of California -- only whether the challengers had proved their case.

The courts also did not determine whether the 50-person limit on CIRM staff was appropriate. Klein now acknowledges that was a mistake on his part in writing Prop. 71, although the agency is still well below that staffing level, a matter of concern to some directors who are worried about burnout and overwork involving CIRM employees.

The state auditor did conduct a lengthy "performance audit." CIRM officially thanked the auditor for her work and made changes in its operations as a result. That audit also was limited in scope. It did not address such questions as whether the quorum requirements written into state law are hampering CIRM's mission. It did not address whether an agency such as CIRM should exist outside of any normal state government controls. It did not address the question of whether overlapping responsibilities between the chairman and president create an inherent, unhealthy conflict that will continue to generate problems as it has in the past.

Back in 2004, backers of human embryonic stem cell research could not find either private or federal funding for their cause. So they ventured into the political arena with Prop. 71 to seek funding from the California public. But playing with the people's cash carries trade-offs. One is public scrutiny that can be uncomfortable.

We recognize Klein's need to posture publicly about CIRM and its actions. Such performances are not uncommon among both politicians and business executives, who believe their main responsibility is to fend off perceived attacks on their endeavors.

However, the Little Hoover Commission is a solid state organization, not given to flip analysis or decisions. Its inquiry should result in recommendations that will help to improve CIRM's operations and deliver more value to the public. Corporations pay millions of dollars to outside consultants to examine their operations and make recommendations that maintain their competitiveness and efficiency. The Little Hoover Commission is going to do that for free for CIRM. The process will certainly make some uneasy, just as it does in the private sector. CIRM should welcome this as a healthy opportunity that could create momentum for needed improvements. Sphere: Related Content

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