Tuesday, October 18, 2011

CIRM Improves Openness, Provides More Timely, Significant Information for Directors Meeting

For the second time in a row, the California stem cell agency is providing the public -- in a timely fashion -- with substantial background information on matters to be decided at an upcoming meeting of its board of directors.

The latest session comes next week (Oct. 26). Among other things, directors are scheduled to approve a $30 million, business-friendly financing program and two new grant rounds totalling $37 million.

For several years, CIRM has failed to provide the public and interested parties ample notice on major and minor proposed programs, effectively barring them from making thoughtful comments or suggestions. Directors also received information late and have sometimes complained in public. The latest agenda represents a marked improvement although information is currently lacking on what appear to be two significant items dealing with CIRM's strategic plan and beefed up PR efforts.

Next week's meeting also shows fewer major items on the agenda than those prepared by former Chairman Robert Klein, which allows more time for discussion of often far-reaching proposals. Additionally, the scaled-down agenda helps to avoid unseemly, late-meeting scrambling to maintain the super-quorum requirements needed for board action. In the past, directors have sometimes left hastily towards the end of meetings in order to catch flights home.

Jonathan Thomas, who was elected chairman in June, prepared a similar agenda for his first board meeting in August. At the end of the meeting, CIRM directors expressed delight at the way the proceedings were handled.

Director Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis medical school, said,
"I just wanted to congratulate and thank Jon Thomas for a great meeting. It was well organized. It was mission-critical, mission-focused and an impressive debut. So we're awfully glad you're here."
"I second that," said director Sherry Lansing, who is chair of the University of California regents and former head of a Hollywood studio, to applause from other directors.

At the meeting next week, directors will be asked to approve a $35 million proposal for another basic biology grant round. The proposal is aimed at fostering "cutting-edge research tackling significant, unresolved issues in human stem cell biology."

A CIRM staff document said,
"Studies should focus on elucidating basic molecular and cellular mechanisms and should utilize pluripotent stem cells, adult stem cells, and/or their differentiated derivatives."
A separate  $2.2 million "creativity awards" program would fund up to 10 high school students for three years for internships in stem cell research labs. The funding would go to institutions to operate the programs.

The $30 million business-oriented program is a response to findings last year by CIRM's external review panel that the organization needed to be more responsive to industry needs. The biotech industry has been less than happy for some time with its 7 percent share of the $1.3 billion that the agency has handed out so far.

Also coming before directors is a new communications plan, which is not yet available on the CIRM web site. The agency is in the process of hiring a public relations person to work in the chairman's office at a salary of up to $200,000. It has also hired the Sacramento political consulting and PR firm of Townsend Raimundo Besler and Usher to analyze its PR needs and to make recommendations.

Thomas told directors earlier this year that the agency was in a "communications war." In an interview a few weeks ago with the California Stem Cell Report, Thomas said one of his main goals is to generate more favorable media coverage of the agency, which is largely invisible to the public.

Some of the agency's PR expenses can be found on a list of outside contracts that is being presented to directors next week. The list is for the past fiscal year (ending June 30). At a total of $3.3 million, the contracts are the second largest item in CIRM's operational budget, following only salaries and benefits.

The communications plan and changes in the job description of the new PR person will also come before the directors' communications subcommittee one week from today.

Also not available on the CIRM web site are unspecified, proposed changes in CIRM's strategic plan, which could be linked to its push for tangible results that will aid in securing voter approval of more multibillion bond funding of the agency.

Next week's meeting will be at UC Irvine with remote locations where the public can participate in Pleasanton, Sacramento and La Jolla. The meeting will be audiocast on the Internet, but that service will not allow for public participation. More details on the audiocast and addresses of the remote locations can be found on the agenda.

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