Sunday, November 23, 2008

Minimal Coverage of Hoover-CIRM Inquiry

News coverage of last week's state Capitol hearing into the affairs of the California stem cell agency was quite light, with only one newspaper writing about the session -- at least based on an Internet search.

Reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune pulled together the single story on the inquiry by California's Little Hoover Commission, reflecting the importance of the biotech and stem cell industry in her area. The Sacramento Bee did not cover the event, but its Capitol Alert Internet service linked to Somers' piece.

The meager coverage was to be expected. Other matters are consuming news organizations, which also are suffering from heavily cut-back staffs.

Somers led with a statement by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein concerning the possibility of another bond measure to continue the work of the agency, which has only a 10-year funding capability. Another bond proposal could be placed on the ballot if the legislature approves or if it qualifies via the initiative process.

Somers described Klein's "unflinching confidence" in the research enterprise and reiterated his familiar pitch that CIRM has been overseen to a fare-thee-well.

Somers wrote,
"But what was perhaps most revealing were the areas of questioning by the commission members. They asked about the size of the institute's governing board, the transparency of its spending decisions, the ability of biotechnology companies to benefit from stem cell grants and the power and job responsibilities of Klein and (CIRM President Alan) Trounson.

"'I'm concerned that there is an arrogance in how the funding is handled and the institute is structured,' said commission vice chairman Eugene “Mitch” Mitchell(see photo), a vice president of San Diego's Sempra Energy. 'I find it baffling that it is a state agency, but there are so many rules it doesn't have to adhere to.'"
She continued,
"Ken Taymor, a UC Berkeley law professor who has attended many of the institute's board meetings, said the public continues to be frustrated that funding decisions are still made behind closed doors. He also urged the commission to look at how power is divided between Klein and Trounson.

"The board's size, at 29 members, makes it inefficient, said several observers. And it is unusual that it has no members whose sole interest is that of the taxpayers, said Michael Klausner, a Stanford Law School expert on nonprofit governance."
Somers wrote,
"John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica advocacy group, suggested trimming the board's membership to 15 people with no conflicts of interest."
(Simpson put out a press release that was distributed widely.)

Somers additionally reported that Trounson indicated that California businesses will do better on the next round of grants. He predicted that probably one-third of the tools-and-technology grant round will go to the private sector. Only one business has won a grant and that was for only $50,000.

We will have more on the hearing over the next few days, but if you can't wait and want to wade through the testimony, it is all available here on the Little Hoover Commission website. An archived video of the entire session should be available soon via the same link. Sphere: Related Content

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