Sunday, March 29, 2009

LA Times Column Rips CIRM as Riddled with Conflicts and Sucking Up Precious Dollars

The first sentence in the article in the Los Angeles Times, California's largest circulation newspaper (1.2 million readers), says,

"In the annals of wrongheaded things done with the best intentions, the California stem cell program has always been in a category of its own."

And that's just the beginning. Next come rife conflicts of interest, spotty public disclosure, a "persistent ethical morass" and a multiplying potential for waste. Not to mention the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM through a political campaign of "exceptional intellectual dishonesty," led by the man who is now chairman of the $6 billion research program, Robert Klein (see photo).

The scathing piece was written by Times columnist Michael Hiltzik for Monday's edition of the Times, which says it has 1.2 million daily, generally well-educated readers. The home page of Times website, which has more than 11 million unique visitors a month, also linked to the article.

The activities of the California stem cell agency have rarely graced the pages of the Times. So CIRM is likely to be new subject to many, if not most of its readers, making it easier for a column such as Hiltzik's to have a significant, opinion-shaping impact.

Hiltzik makes his point of view abundantly clear. He writes that CIRM "threatens to suck up precious fiscal resources of a state with none to spare and is rife with conflicts of interest."

He continues,
"The institute is tangled in a persistent ethical morass. From the start, its safeguards against conflicts of interest by members of its 29-person governing board were sketchy, and provisions for vigorous debate over its goals and methods were nil."
Hiltzik says CIRM director John Reed should have been ousted from the board for attempting to overturn rejection of a grant to the organization he heads, the Burnham Institute. Hiltzik quotes figures from the California Stem Cell Report that show 18 institutions with representatives on the board (past and present) have received $552 million in CIRM grants as of last October.

Hiltzik writes,
"Lacking any truly independent members, the board is dominated by Klein and devoid of 'genuine debate,' observes UC Berkeley Law professor Kenneth Taymor, who spent months studying the body. Indeed, reading transcripts of the board's sessions, one sometimes gets the impression that the only vigorous debate among the members involves which historical figure Klein more resembles, Albert Schweitzer or Mahatma Gandhi."
Hiltzik also discusses the ongoing shift at CIRM towards product development. He quotes Arnold Kriegstein of UC San Francisco as saying he fears the move is motived by a "desire to come up with a real clinical triumph they could claim credit for. I'm concerned that in the rush to get there they may be spending a fair amount of funds on projects that are just not ready yet."

There is much more, including a defense of CIRM's strategy by its chief scientific officer Marie Csete.

Hiltzik's observations cannot be written off as the frothings of a journalistic lightweight. The author of three nonfiction books, he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for reporting on corruption in the entertainment industry. In 2004, he won a Gerald Loeb Award, one of the top national honors in financial journalism, for his columns. Earlier this month, he was a co-winner of another national business reporting prize for a Los Angeles Times series called "Shedding Risk."

It is safe to say that Hiltzik's latest column will not be warmly received by CIRM. It will add fuel to the state's Little Hoover Commission's investigation of CIRM. It will feed legislative efforts to ensure that Californians have affordable access to stem cell therapies that result from CIRM-funded research. And it will hamper both Klein's efforts to privately market state bonds to bail out CIRM and his lobbying efforts for a $10 billion federal, biotech stimulus package.

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