Tuesday, October 06, 2009

CIRM Panel Approves $300,000 Economic Study; Public Access to Data Still a Question

A subcommittee of the directors of the California stem cell agency today unanimously approved a $300,000 economic impact study of the agency's work by a firm that is expected to “execute a vibrant and aggressive strategy” supporting CIRM.

Still up in the air is whether CIRM will allow other researchers and interested parties access to the basic data that will be gathered for the study at taxpayer expense. Much of the information will come from recipients of CIRM grants.

In response to an email query, Don Gibbons, spokesman for CIRM, said the Governance Subcommittee approved the study to be conducted by LECG of Emeryville, Ca. Gibbons did not respond directly to questions about whether the data would be available to other, non-CIRM researchers, who could make an independent assessment about the financial impact of spending $3 billion for research.

Gibbons looked askance at an earlier item on the California Stem Cell Report that discussed the issue of public availability of the information.

He said in an email that the article was “grabbing at straws.” The item was based on a brief response from Gibbons to two questions from the California Stem Cell Report. Gibbons said that he was “in a hurry” when he looked at our emailed questions and misread them as a request for a copy of a contract. (Our two sentence request can be found here.)

Gibbons added that at the Governance meeting, CIRM Chairman Robert Klein “pledged that the (economic analysis) model created will be made public,” a statement that raised another question from us.

We asked Gibbons,
“To double-check, your message....omits any reference to making the basic data public. The 'model' is different than the data used in it.

“Will the basic data be available to the public and will it be available in a non-proprietary format? Thanks.“
Gibbons' verbatim response:
“The bulk of their work will be on the model. The only case that will be worked through with full data will be the test case on Polycythemia Vera. There will be some data that will be protected by patient privacy laws. We have not worked out where that line will be drawn.”
CIRM's position falls far short of ensuring public and researcher access to the basic data, which is being generated with taxpayer funds. Bringing up patient privacy laws only confuses the issue. In virtually all major studies of this sort, individual names and personal information are not important to the analysis. The data are aggregated in an anonymous fashion.

The important point is to build a database from the very start that is publicly usable and that does not co-mingle confidential and public information in such a way that harms its public accessibility. If the two categories are interwoven inappropriately, it could make the data nearly impossible to unwind.

To fail to ensure public access to the basic information only damages CIRM's credibility, especially when the agency goes to Sacramento seeking additional funding. Klein has promised to adhere to the highest standards of openness. It is time for him to fulfill that promise.

As for the independence of the winning firm, CIRM's request for bids specifically stated that a successful bidder must “execute a vibrant and aggressive strategy to support the goals and initiatives of CIRM.”

1 comment:

  1. Don Gibbons, CCO CIRM8:59 AM

    Once again MR. Jensen has selectively used portions of my comments to him and of our public documents to make a distorted case. Our public document posted to the committee agenda as well as my email to Mr. Jensen yesterday noted that after the initial economic impact model is created, we will be inviting in outside experts to evaluate the model. With this type of study it is rarely the raw data that causes issues of validity, it is the model and whether it accurately captures all the relevant information on both sides of the cost-benefit equation.