Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Murky Backdrop on $5.4 Million Grant to Burnham Scientist

Directors of the California stem cell agency tomorrow will be asked to approve a $1.85 million increase in a grant to a Southern California researcher after he filed a proposal that violated CIRM's rules against spending CIRM funds out of state.

The CIRM staff made the recommendation for the 50 percent boost (for a total of $5.4 million) in the grant to Evan Snyder of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla. Last April CIRM directors approved a $3.6 million award to Snyder, apparently without knowing that it would violate the explicit ban on non-California spending. The staff said the money was needed because of the increased cost of moving the work to California.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., called on directors to reject the grant outright. To do otherwise, he said, would be “extremely unfair to other applicants who followed correct procedures.”

In a statement to the California Stem Cell Report, Simpson said (full text available here),
“Either the applicant deliberately flouted the rules requiring all research to be done in California and thought he could get away with it or he didn't understand the rules. In either case he did not follow them.

“Assume the best and, unlikely as it seems, grant that a top California researcher and his institution didn't understand CIRM's regulations. But just as ignorance of the law is no excuse, ignorance of the rules governing CIRM awards is no an excuse for not following them.”
In response to a query, Snyder defended his proposal. He said the proposal uses California taxpayer funds "in the most economical and frugal manner possible.” He said Simpson “is misinformed about the most parsimonious way of stretching California biomedical research dollars during hard financial times. CIRM and the ICOC(CIRM directors), in fact, exerted exceptional fiduciary (not to mention scientific) responsibility in awarding this grant. They awarded the contract to the lowest bidder.”

Just how all this came about is a bit murky. CIRM shrouds its grant-making process in secrecy. Names of grant applicants are not revealed until after the winners are approved. Names of rejected applicants are never disclosed. Even today the CIRM staff information on the Snyder grant that is being presented to directors tomorrow does not include his name or the name of his employer. However, that information was given to directors last April as part of its “extraordinary petition” process. The staff report itself became public on the CIRM Web site only three business days prior to the CIRM board meeting in Sacramento.

Asked for a comment, Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM, said “The budget for the California researcher included a research subcontract to a U.S. organization outside California. CIRM followed standard practice for this funding round, performing a detailed budget review of each proposal approved by the board. When it became clear that this proposal included a subcontract that CIRM could not fund, CIRM asked the PI if the proposal could be revised to meet CIRM funding requirements.”

Gibbons did not respond directly to a question about how an application proposing out-of-state spending came to be approved by the board. (More of Gibbons' response can be found here.)

Gibbons also did not respond to a request for the identity of the non-California recipient originally proposed by Snyder. But in Snyder's response (full text here) to the California Stem Cell Report, Snyder refers to the St. Kitts Biomedical Research Foundation in the Carribean. Snyder said it is “the best non-human primate facility for Parkinson's Disease research in the world.” However, it is unclear whether that was out-of-state spending identified by CIRM.

The Snyder grant poses some important questions for CIRM directors.

Should they reward a researcher who failed to follow CIRM rules?

Would that be fair to other applicants?

Should CIRM President Alan Trounson have been involved in the review of the proposal, which has collaborators at Monash University in Australia, an institution where Trounson presided over the stem cell research program? Presumably a failure to fund Snyder would have a negative impact on his Australian counterparts(Trounson's former colleagues), although they are not funded by CIRM.

How does the situation affect the public perception of CIRM? Snyder's boss, John Reed, the president of the Sanford-Burnham Institute, sits on the CIRM board although he cannot vote on the grant or even take part in the discussion about it. Should Trounson take part in tomorrow's discussion of the Snyder grant?

Would the situation have been handled in the same fashion if the grant applicant had been from a less illustrious institution, such as UC Merced?

Is the research so compelling and urgent that it overwhelms any sort of negative reaction? Or would it be better to defer the issue until additional information is available to directors and the public?

These questions should be considered in the context of a recent chorus of recommendations for more transparency and accountability on the part of CIRM. (See here, here, here and here.) Sphere: Related Content

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