The proposal was triggered by a situation in which Lee Hood of Seattle, Wash., was recruited to serve as a scientist-member of the group that was reviewing applications in a $40 million grant round last spring. One of the applications involved stem cell scientist Irv Weissman of Stanford University, a close friend of Hood. The men also own a ranch in Montana together and have scientific and professional links. Alan Trounson, the stem cell agency's president, has been a guest of Weissman's at the ranch and recruited Hood, an expert in genomics, as a grant reviewer.
CIRM, as the $3 billion stem cell agency is known, said it did not detect the relationship between Hood and Weissman until it was called to their attention by another reviewer who was also participating in the closed-door review of applications.
A staff memo prepared for next week's meeting of the agency governing board described the violation as “inadvertent and highly technical.”
On Monday, the California Stem Cell Report reported that unspecified changes were being considered in the conflict rules. Following publication of the item, more information on the proposal was posted on the agency's Web site in preparation for next Wednesday's meeting of the agency's governing board in Burlingame, Ca.
The memo, prepared by the agency's attorneys, said,
“In order to prevent both the reality and appearance of a conflict, while preserving CIRM's ability to attract the best reviewers available, the rules should flag only those interests that could genuinely be deemed material.”The changes would create a threshold of $5,000 a year for conflicts involving salary or consulting fees. Less than that would not trigger a conflict situation. Other proposed changes to be taken up by the agency board involve personal and professional conflicts along with the nature of the economic disclosures that reviewers, all of whom are from out-of-state, must disclose privately to a handful of agency officials.
The agency's scientific reviewers do not have to disclose publicly their financial and professional interests despite the fact that they have made all of the decisions on 98 percent of the applications for the $1.8 billion the agency has handed out. The interests of the reviewers are also withheld from applicants, many of whom may have competing or professional interests. The agency requires that reviewers who have conflicts must be removed from consideration of applications where conflicts exist. However, there is no way to determine whether that is actually done because the applications are reviewed behind closed doors and the economic and professional disclosures are withheld from the public.
The agency's position on the conflict involving Weissman and Hood is disingenuous. To say that it is “highly technical” trivializes the entire matter. The conflict problem does not necessarily arise because Hood's friend (Weissman) could have received a few thousand dollars through approval of a grant. It involves much, much more. The application was for $24 million to create the first-ever stem cell genomics center in California. Should Weissman's employer, Stanford University, have been selected for the facility, it would have accrued to the great benefit of that institution, both monetarily and otherwise. Indirectly, it would have also enhanced Weissman's already substantial reputation and prestige as a person whose name can sway actions by California's state research effort. In the world of science, reputation and prestige often count for more than money.