Monday, July 23, 2012

California Stem Cell Agency Shy This Week on Openness

In the past year, since J.T. Thomas has served as chairman of the California stem cell agency, the $3 billion enterprise has done well in providing the public with important information about matters that come before its governing board – a welcome change from the grievously deficient past performance.

However, that new, high standard for openness and transparency is coming up short this month.

With less than three days remaining before Thursday's meeting of the governing board, important information remains missing on significant matters scheduled to be discussed later this week in Burlingame.

At the top of the list is the response by CIRM President Alan Trounson to the first-ever performance audit of the nearly eight-year-old agency. The $234,944 study said the agency is laboring under a host of problems, ranging from protection of its intellectual property and management of its nearly 500 grants to an inadequate ability to track its own performance. Trounson's response could have come much earlier than this week, even last May when the results were unveiled publicly, although the agency had been briefed privately on them still earlier.

Also missing from the agenda is an important update on what Thomas has called a “communications war” – shorthand for the efforts by CIRM to generate more and favorable news coverage of the agency along with solidifying support among its constituent groups. The agency's weak PR effort, which is now improving, has troubled many directors for some time. The CIRM story is critical to the agency's financial future as it looks to private funding to continue its life beyond 2017 when its money runs out.

Also not be found is an explanation of an item before the directors' Science Subcommittee on Wednesday evening that appears to have interesting implications, given CIRM efforts to embrace the biotech industry more warmly. The proposal calls for  establishing “responsible budgeting as a criterion for evaluating applications for funding.” No further information is available. But one wonders whether the proposal could reflect CIRM's unfortunate experience with Geron, which signed a $25 million loan agreement with CIRM last summer only to dump its hESC program a little more than three months later. Geron cited financial reasons. One also wonders whether the need to focus on “responsible budgeting” reflects problems with some researchers or whether it is intended to help businesses pick up a larger share of awards.

Posting details on issues to be decided by directors -- in a timely fashion -- should be a routine matter for the agency. It is also key to engaging the public, industry and researchers – not to mention that it is good policy, good management and good government. Without adequate notice, it is impossible for interested parties to comment on proposals or make well-considered suggestions. Given the agency's improved performance during the past year, this month's slippage may only be an aberration. We hope so.

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