Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Tipping Point for CIRM? Reform Recommendations Coincide with Pressing Problems

California's Little Hoover Commission's sweeping report on the state's $3 billion stem cell agency comes at a time when the ambitious research enterprise could be facing a tipping point in its short life.

Recent weeks have seen several significant developments involving the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which is less than five years old.
  • Its chairman, Robert Klein, made it clear he is not going fill the job after 2010.
  • Marie Csete, CIRM's chief scientific officer, said she is quitting Aug. 1 for unexplained reasons.
  • The agency is about to embark on its largest and most ambitious round of research grants, a $210 million effort that Klein has identified as critical.
  • At the same time, it will launch a related, risky and unprecedented $500 million lending program for the biotech industry.
  • Festering questions involving structural and governance issues surfaced in a contentious CIRM board meeting earlier this month.
  • Revision of CIRM's strategic plan, which has guided it successfully so far, has been moldering for months.
  • Funding problems – solved for the time being – will arise once again in 2010.
  • And CIRM staff has identified both the potential loss of key staff and community support as two risks the agency faces.
That said, CIRM will have approved $1 billion in grants by the end of this year. It is already the largest source of funding in the world for human embryonic stem cell research. “California has made an investment in innovation that is the envy of the world,” said Daniel Hancock, chairman of the Little Hoover Commission and former president of Shapell Industries.

Nonetheless, said the commission, CIRM can and should do better if some of the niggling and not-so-niggling impediments embedded in state law by Prop. 71 are removed or altered. They include: reducing the size of the unwieldy, 29-member board, adding independent voices to the panel, eliminating the overlapping roles of the chairman and president and beginning the all-important planning for leadership transition. (A list of the recommendations can be found here, excerpts here and the complete report here.)

The commission's report is fair-minded, thoughtful and well-researched. It pointed several times to CIRM's accomplishments and the contributions of Chairman Klein. The commission's recommendations stopped short of seeking another ballot measure, which would be unrealistic and stimulate acrimony from CIRM and its supporters. The good government agency said changes should “be prospective and strategic and minimize disruption that might slow CIRM's ambitious and creative agenda.”

CIRM's reaction was adversarial and defensive, a CIRM tendency that the commission discussed in its study.

The agency reaction came in the form of a news release from CIRM in which Klein said,
“To disrupt and delay the agency’s critical work for a year, or even six months, because of what the commission’s staff has called ‘perception’ issues is unacceptable. Let them talk perception to patients who miss out on a therapeutic breakthrough that would have saved their lives because the agency has been paralyzed by a sweeping reorganization.”
CIRM challenged the legality of legislative enactment of the recommendations and basically threatened a lawsuit, raising the rather bizarre picture of a state agency suing the governor and the legislature. More likely, Klein would find a friendly group to act as a legal surrogate, perhaps his own private stem cell lobbying group, Americans for Cures.

The CIRM press release triggered a less than pleased response today from Jeff Sheehy, a member of the CIRM board.

In a comment posted on the California Stem Cell Report, he said,
“On whose authority are thousands of dollars of lobbying, communications, and legal resources being spent opposing this report? The legislature requested this report and to oppose in this knee jerk fashion could properly and reasonably offend those legislators who supported the engagement of the Little Hoover Commission.”
He said that most CIRM board members would likely agree with recommendations to remove the 50-person cap on CIRM staff and the 15-person limit on outside scientists on the grant review panel.

Sheehy said the board – not the agency – should take a position on the report after thoroughly analyzing it.

From outside the agency came a nod of approval for the commission's work. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., said,
“This is a thoughtful and thorough analysis from a bipartisan group with no ax to grind. CIRM’s management and board should listen to its advice.”
Klein's longstanding involvement with CIRM was touched on by the commission. It said that much was owed to Klein's hard work, beginning with overseeing the campaign for Prop. 71 in 2004. But it said that his actions and personal style “have been at the core of many of the criticisms of the stem-cell agency, and have made him a lightning rod for calls for more accountability.”

The commission continued,
“An agency governance structure that features key positions built around specific individuals does not serve the best interests of the mission of the agency or the state of California, however well-qualified the individuals may be.”
The commission stressed that succession planning should be a top priority of the CIRM board considering Klein's plans to leave his post in 18 months. The commission raised other questions about CIRM's future.
“How will CIRM know when its job is done?
“What happens when CIRM runs out of money?
“Is the mission of Prop. 71 best served by transforming CIRM into a self-sustaining operation?"
Nearly five years ago, voters approved Prop. 71 with the understanding that it was a 10-year effort. While it does lose its ability to sell bonds after that period, the agency will continue to have some sort of life, perhaps only as a vestige in state law books.

CIRM directors should give the commission's report serious consideration as they look at their own plans for the agency's future and life without Robert Klein.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly stated the Little Hoover Commission's final report included a recommendation for reduction of the super-majority quorum requirement for the stem cell agency board. The change was initially recommended in the commission's draft report, but was dropped in the final report, which said the quorum requirement was “problematic.”)

1 comment:

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