Monday, February 01, 2010

LA Times Columnist Targets CIRM; Structural Changes Needed

The California stem cell agency, which has “self-righteously” opposed better public oversight of its activities, should be altered to create a research program that “exemplifies not only good science, but good government,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist said today in the Los Angeles Times.

While noting that the agency has funded “important work,” Michael Hiltzik said,
“...(I)t's ridiculous for CIRM to maintain that increased legislative oversight and a more compact and objective board are inimical to its purpose of fostering stem cell research in California.”
Hiltzik, whose piece was the 10th most viewed article on the Times Web site early this morning, first wrote about the agency during the political campaign that created it in 2004. His latest article came after he attended last week's session of a key state panel that unanimously called for more openness and accountability from CIRM. The panel, the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, is chaired by state Controller John Chiang, who is the state's top fiscal officer.

Hiltzik said that the $3 billion agency came under withering fire at the meeting of the committee, which is part of Prop. 71, the same measure that created the stem cell agency.

Hiltzik focused on comments by committee member Loren Lipson, a physician and research scientist at USC. (The dean of the USC medical school sits on the CIRM board of directors. USC has received $71 millions from CIRM.)

Hiltzik wrote,
“Lipson objected to CIRM's practice of keeping the identities of grant applicants secret until and unless they win a grant. He thinks that without full transparency, it's impossible to know whether the scientific peer reviewers or the board have shown undue favoritism to the victors.

“That's especially a problem, Lipson believes, because the stem cell research community is small and so much of the board is, by design, self-interested. 'To me it looks like an old-boys club,' he told me after the meeting. 'When I look at that board I get a bad feeling of impropriety.'

“CIRM officials assured him that conflicts of interest aren't a problem on the board or among its scientific peer review teams, but he remains unimpressed. 'They never really answered my questions,' he says.”
Hiltzik, the author of three nonfiction books and winner of one of the top prizes in financial journalism, also discussed CIRM's new-found desire to change one provision of Prop. 71: the 50-person cap on the size of its staff.

He wrote,
“The good news for taxpayers is that the program's request for more staff could open the door for our elected representatives to finally insist on some jurisdiction over the spending of our $3 billion -- $6 billion including interest on the state bonds with which the money is raised. The key questions are these: Is it being spent appropriately, and is it being spent without conflicts of interest? On both issues, there's reason for doubt. Unfortunately, the program has managed to fend off every effort by elected officials to weigh in.

“The 50-employee limit was trumpeted by Proposition 71's supporters as proof that the program would be lean and mean, with almost all the money going to science. You might think they must have known from the start that managing a $3-billion scientific research program would require a larger staff, but then that would make them look cynical, and who wants to do that?”
Hiltzik continued,
“There's no question that CIRM has funded important work and bolstered the state's research profile. And there's no reason to doubt that CIRM needs more staff scientists to make sure grant recipients are spending our money properly, especially since the program is about to start doling out loans to commercial companies, not just grants to academics.

“But it's ridiculous for CIRM to maintain that increased legislative oversight and a more compact and objective board are inimical to its purpose of fostering stem cell research in California. CIRM mouthpieces love to claim that the 'voters' intent' should be honored by keeping the program rigorously free of political oversight -- but then the voters' intent was also to give it 50 staff members, and not a soul more.

“Nothing requires the Legislature to crack open the door on Proposition 71 only as far as CIRM wishes. The Legislature should let the program have the additional staff, but on its own terms. These should include a change in CIRM's board structure and imposition of the sort of oversight the program should have had in the first place -- including a reduction in the requirement for legislative amendments from 70% to a bare majority and giving Chiang the broader authority he requested. That's the way to create a public stem cell research program that exemplifies not only good science, but good government.”
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