Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Attention Scientists: CIRM Is Changing Grant Rules

With little notice, the California stem cell agency is moving quietly to make significant changes that are likely to affect hundreds of scientists seeking a share in the $3 billion that the agency is handing out.

The matter comes under the innocuous heading of “submitting supplemental materials.” But just how successfully a competitor exploits the new procedures could have a major impact on whether his or her grant wins approval from the de facto decision makers, the CIRM grant review group.

The changes are scheduled to come up next Monday at a meeting in San Francisco of the grant group, the sessions of which are almost never attended by members of the public. The reason for the lack of attendance is that the sessions are devoted almost entirely to closed-door deliberations of applications.

However, in the case of the supplemental material matter, by law it must be considered in an open, public session. Interested parties may comment and make suggestions for changes. Although the agenda for the meeting makes no mention of the opportunity, any person or business can also send comments to the grants group in advance of the meeting and ask them to be considered.

The one-page justification for the grant application change and its provisions appears to have been posted last Thursday night (Feb. 11, 2010) on the CIRM Web site. However, no notice of the specific meeting or the proposed changes is provided on the home page of the CIRM Web site. That's in keeping with the standard practice of the agency, which tucks away notices on its Web site of its public meetings, even when they involve hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

This case and an earlier transparency failure involving the January CIRM board meeting followed a call last month by a key state panel for more openness on the part of the agency. The panel's recommendations appeared to have triggered two newspaper editorials and a separate column in the Los Angeles Times expressing deep concern about CIRM's lack of accountability. One editorial likened the agency to a “private fiefdom.”

As for the supplemental material plan itself, CIRM proposes a limited opportunity both in time and space for researchers to beef up their grant bids. The general idea is to provide an opportunity for submission of “critical new information” that has come up since the application was filed. It would include citations to journal publications and research “accepted for publication” but not yet published. Also to be permitted would be a single page of “preliminary data” related to the proposed project along with two letters of support for “new collaborations.”

The entire CIRM proposal can be found here.
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