Under a new law, the $3 billion state research effort is required to conduct its first-ever "performance" audit this year and again every three years. Under the law, CIRM could have stipulated that the audit would include scientific performance, but it has chosen not to do so.
Instead, the audit will primarily examine "policies and procedures" for issuing contracts, grants and treatment of intellectual property to determine how well the agency is doing.
Admirable goals but certainly not even close to a full measure of CIRM's performance. Most would agree that the paramount measure is whether the agency has made good on the promises of the 2004 election campaign that created it. To do that would require an examination of CIRM's scientific program and the results it has generated.
The agency plans to pay $250,000 for the audit, selecting a bidder next month. The deadline for firms to present their bids is Friday. At least 10 firms have expressed an interest in the contract. They include Teeb Lead Project Management Solutions, Capital Partnerships Inc. (also dba The Resources Company), Crowe Horwath LLP, KPMG LLP, IntelliBridge Partners, Moss Adams LLP, Level 4 Ventures, Inc., Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio& Associates, PC; Moss Adams LLP, Strategica, Inc., and Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting, Inc.
The requirement for the audit was contained in legislation authored by State Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose. When she introduced her bill last year, she said CIRM is "essentially accountable to no one."
Alquist initially would have placed the performance audit in the hands of an independent, third party, the state controller, instead of CIRM itself. The controller, the state's top fiscal officer, is chairman of the only state body, the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, specifically charged with evaluating the performance of the stem cell agency and its board. Introduction of the legislation came after Controller John Chiang and the committee unanimously called for more accountability at CIRM.
The legislation also originally provided that the audit would include CIRM's strategic policies and plans, which would have brought scientific matters under scrutiny.
But as the bill moved through the legislature, CIRM was successful in amending it to remove the "strategic policies and plans" language. Also inserted was language that the audit did not need to cover scientific performance, which gave CIRM more control of the scope of the audit.
However, CIRM took the matter further this summer. In its RFP for the audit, the agency misstated the statute, telling potential bidders that the law bars an examination of scientific performance, when in fact it does not.
Here is CIRM's language from the RFP:
"The statute specifically excludes scientific performance from the scope of the audit."Here is the language from the law:
"The performance audit shall not be required to include a review of scientific performance."Asked for a comment, CIRM defended the RFP characterization. Melissa King, executive director of the CIRM board, said in an email,
"The statement is correct because it is intended to convey that a scientific review is expressly excluded from the required audit areas. Furthermore, most government accounting firms do not have the expertise to conduct a scientific review. That is one of the reasons we have asked the IOM (Institute of Medicine) to conduct a study."The $700,000 IOM study is more far-reaching, but has also been commissioned by CIRM. The IOM has a reputation for independence. However, any examination that is paid for by the agency that is the subject of the scrutiny will always face questions about its objectivity. It goes to the old saying about he who pays the piper, calls the tune.
Both the performance review and the IOM study are certain to become election campaign documents in a couple of years. CIRM survives only on money that the state borrows – bonds. And the agency is aiming for voter approval of another multibillion dollar bond measure to continue its operations beyond about 2017. To win support, CIRM and its backers undoubtedly will ballyhoo what it presumes will be favorable findings to bolster its bid for more cash.
When viewed in the context of a ballot campaign, CIRM efforts to limit the scope and shape the findings of either the performance audit or the IOM study will also undoubtedly damage their credibility.