Sunday, February 09, 2014

California's Stem Cell Genomics Award: Text of Critique of Award Process

Here are comments concerning the process involving a $40 million stem cell genomics award by the California stem cell agency last month. The remarks were provided at the request of the California Stem Cell Report with the promise that they would be carried verbatim. The person providing them asked not to be identified by name, but is familiar with the agency.
“1. It appears that CIRM staff took a lot of liberties behind closed doors in driving this initiative to its final outcome. For example, what happened to require a resubmission and re-review etc. Did they change anything about this initiative in the process?  Were certain criteria shared with some but not all applicants?
“2. It also appears that the board was taken by surprise and not prepared to deal with the complexities in this initiative.  Clearly staff has not kept them in the loop and they had little access to the details of the process and how reviewers were managed.  They have always funded the vast majority of what the reviewers scored highly, and still did not break the bank.  This is a brand new situation where the reviewers recommended more grants than they could afford to fund.  This happens a lot in the NIH (especially today with severe budget cuts), so NIH has developed many processes to deal with this.  CIRM has not seen anything like this before.
“3.  The process of board approval, and the tiny amount of information they were provided in order to make their decisions, means that they had to rely completely on what staff says.  This means they have no way to do anything but accept staff recommendations.  The questions (all legitimate) raised by the certain members of the board were by and large not understood or picked up by the other voting members, so they went nowhere.
“4. Whereas the staff was fully prepared to deal with questions raised in letters from the dissatisfied applicants, the board had no context to really appreciate these questions, nor the details of the applications to 'get' the implications of these concerns.
“5. (This comment was excised because it could identify the commentator.)
“6. I did not like their final compromise.  They could have just funded the co-ordinating center, then go into closed session, asked to see the applications in private and picked to fund the best individual projects.  Now Stanford got even more money than they had asked for, and Stanford gets to decide which of their competitors to fund.  Incredible!
“7. Too many thoughtful board members were conflicted out, leaving the decision-making to a handful who are not prepared to deal with this complex situation.  I blame the IOM (Institute of Medicine) report in giving too much power, without the appropriate process, to staff.  Staff can recommend, but if the board has no information other than what staff provides, then they are acting in the dark.”
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