Thursday, March 18, 2010

Capitol Newspaper Explores CIRM Accountability Issues

The California stem cell agency and legislation aimed at improving accountability at the $3 billion enterprise were the subjects of a piece this morning in Capitol Weekly, a newspaper and Web site in Sacramento devoted to government and politics.

Reporter John Howard wrote,
“Lawmakers – again -- are questioning the operations and culture of the state’s stem cell program....(T) the issue isn’t so much the scientific savvy of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine....Rather, it is the potential for conflicts in the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars of grants – the current total is over $1 billion  -- and the perceived lack of public disclosure cloaking the agency’s activities....”
Howard continued,
“'Basically, the attitude has been that they just want the Legislature to go away so they can run their own show,' said former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, a supporter of stem cell research, who authored (unsuccessful) legislation in 2007 to tighten controls over CIRM.”
From CIRM, Howard quoted Vice Chairman Art Torres as saying,
"There is a tremendous adherence to dealing with conflicts of interest, to transparency, to making sure that anyone who has even a scintilla of a conflict is removed from the process.”
Also quoted in the piece were yours truly and John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca.

We should note, as we have in the past, that the conflicts at CIRM are part of its DNA and are not going to go away. One key question is how forthright will CIRM be in disclosing them to the public and interested parties.

As we told Howard in an email,
"Prop. 71 created a board of directors with built-in conflicts. The chief beneficiaries of CIRM's largess -- to the tune of around $700 million or so -- have seats on the board. The individuals from those institutions -- multiple campuses of the University of California, USC, Stanford, Burnham, Salk, etc. -- cannot vote on the specific grants to their institutions,  but they decide what type of research to pursue and the rules for conducting the research. The board also has ultimate oversight of the grants,  some of which contain financial benchmarks. The defacto decisions on the grants are made by the grants review group, which includes out-of-state scientists who score the grants on scientific merit.  Those scientists do not have to make public their statements of economic interest, although they are disclosed to some CIRM personnel. That is a major flaw in CIRM's accountability and transparency. The board legally makes the final decision on the grants, but in practice almost never reverses a positive decision by the reviewers. And only in a handful of cases has the board reversed a negative decision by reviewers."
For more on conflicts of interest at CIRM, see the list of articles in the item below.

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