Thursday, November 05, 2009

More on the Tale of Three Terminations

Some confusion has arisen in connection with a story in the Scientist magazine concerning our account of the termination of three grants by the California stem cell agency.

In an attempt to clarify the situation, we are providing more information on the decision by the California Stem Cell Report to withhold the names of the researchers and also on the actions of the California stem cell agency.

CIRM was slow to release the information, which by state law is public record, but the agency did not withhold it. Here is the string of events.

Last June, I was at the CIRM board meeting at which Marie Csete , then CIRM's chief scientific officer, gave her account of how the CIRM SEED grants were monitored. (CSCR carried the text of her remarks and those of directors in the four related items posted this week.)

At the meeting, I asked both the CIRM attorney, James Harrison, and the chief communications officer, Don Gibbons, for the names. They asked for a week or so delay in providing them in order to be sure the researchers had been told their names were public record and to discuss the matter with CIRM's executive committee. Given the potential impact on the researchers, that seemed appropriate.

Some weeks passed, and I still had not heard back. So I queried Gibbons by email concerning the names. He ultimately provided information that led to their identification.

Over the decades that I have spent as a reporter and editor, my practice then and now is to publish the names of individuals involved in public matters. In the case of CIRM, the agency leads an unprecedented, $6 billion (including interest) experiment with taxpayer dollars that could have a major impact on science, making it all the more important that the agency be critically examined.

That said, it is incumbent on journalists to consider the personal and professional impact of the publication of names on the individuals involved, many of whom are secondary to the matter at hand. In marginal cases, editors and reporters should weigh the pros and cons of such publication and whether the potential damage outweighs the possible public good. In this case, some of the questions for me were: Will better policy result if the individuals are identified? Was there wrongdoing? Is it unfair to single out these individuals while others who may be involved in more serious misdeeds (say for example, possibly some NIH grant recipients) remain anonymous?

Given current practices surrounding government research grants, public disclosure of the names in this case would carry a great potential for harm to the individuals and little public benefit. The problem is largely created by NIH grant monitoring practices, among others. As I understand it, the NIH rarely, if ever terminates a grant for lack of progress. When NIH grants are terminated, they appear to involve cases of malfeasance or some sort of wrongdoing. Such does not appear to be the case involving the three CIRM grants. However, the perception in the scientific community, right or wrong, is certain to be colored by the NIH approach. I also think it is fair to say that many CIRM researchers are not accustomed to CIRM's monitoring, particularly the three researchers, all of whom have long and respected careers.

Probably the most important question raised by this case is: Why does the NIH give away money and not monitor the grant progress much as CIRM does? CIRM Director Floyd Bloom, former editor-in-chief of Science magazine, said that under NIH practices a researcher is free to "change directions, convert personnel into equipment funds, and essentially re-program the proposed project." It may be stretching it a bit, but some folks from Enron and WorldCom are serving prison time for doing much the same thing.

As for CIRM's openness and transparency, given decades of experience with California state government, it is not much different than many state agencies, which is not a high hurdle. CIRM certainly could do better, especially considering the conflicts of interest that are built into its board.

The agency has pledged to adhere to the highest standards of openness but has fallen short of that measure, which goes beyond mere legal requirements. For example, CIRM's 29 directors and additional top management must file statements of economic interest under the state's conflict of interest laws. The governor of the state of California posts his statement online along with the top officials in his administration. CIRM does not meet that standard. Instead, interested parties must make a specific request for a public record that is not on the CIRM Web site. Responses on records requests sometimes take weeks and weeks. CIRM refuses to disclose in any form the economic interest reports from the reviewers who make the de facto decisions on grant applications. That makes it all but impossible for grant applicants or the public to determine if conflicts exist. CIRM also regularly fails to post important background material well in advance of its directors meeting, meaning that interested parties do not have enough time to comment intelligently or make plans to attend the meetings. More examples could be cited.

The Scientist story has generated little comment on its Web site, but one remark caught my eye today. Rafaela Canete-Soler said,
“The (monitoring and termination) policy at the CIRM seems to me timely and appropriate. By the tone of the article and the sentiments of the researchers, I can only express my admiration for them, as well as for CIRM and the way the evaluation seems to have taken place. We all know that projects and ideas do not always work the way that we had planned.

“I once heard that changes for the best almost always happen first in California, then in the United States and then in the rest of the world. The policy of NIH of liberty to take the research where it leads you does not appear to be sustainable any longer. For a very simple reason: resources are finite. Priorities and objectives, particularly those proposed by researcher, and for which they are funded, are to be followed up and nurtured within the framework of a sound and healthy competition system.”
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