Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Stem Cells and Revolving Doors: The California Experience

The phrase “revolving door” is not one that rolls off the tongues of most Americans. But it is shorthand for an issue that concerns both Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame as well as taxi drivers in New York City.

It is also a matter of importance to the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and other state agencies.

Natalie DeWitt
CIRM photo
The issue surfaced this week with the departure of a high level staffer at the San Francisco-based agency -- Natalie DeWitt, special projects officer for its former president, Alan Trounson. DeWitt's final day at the agency was last Friday. She began her new job on Monday at Baxter Laboratory at Stanford University.

Garry Nolan, Helen Blau, Peter Jackson
Baxter Laboratory photo
Baxter is run by Stanford scientists Helen Blau, Garry Nolan and Peter Jackson. Blau has received $2.8 million from the stem cell agency. Nolan has received $1.3 million. He is also a leader (co-PI) on a $20 million award in the agency's signature disease team effort.

No one is alleging that DeWitt or others have done anything wrong. She has a fulsome resume and a record of accomplishment.

Her departure from CIRM and employment at Baxter, nonetheless, does bring to the fore revolving door employment issues that now are a matter of greater concern for the agency than they were five years ago. The agency is scheduled to run out of funds for new awards in less than three years. Some of its employees are undoubtedly going to be looking for future employment in California's small, stem cell research community. It would be natural for agency employees to want to capitalize on their unique experience at CIRM. That is what gaining professional experience is all about.

But there are legal and ethical constraints. To prevent improper influence on governmental actions, the state of California has laws dealing with revolving door employment. Briefly summarized, state law says that certain former state employees and consultants can be banned from attempting to influence their former agency, either for one year or permanently. Current state officials also can be barred from taking part in decisions that directly relate to a prospective employer.

The California Stem Cell Report this week queried CIRM about its revolving door policies. Kevin McCormack, senior director of public communications, replied,
“These are issues that we are encouraged to be mindful of from the day we are hired to the day we leave. Once we accept the job we are given an 'employee handbook' (see below) which includes information about the state policy on what is appropriate behavior. As state employees, we have to periodically go through ethics training, and this covers what is and is not acceptable behavior in these instances. We are also encouraged to consult our in-house lawyers for guidance or to get advice from the state ethics agency on how the rules might apply to a particular situation.”

Revolving door problems are not new to either state or national government. They have long dogged such agencies as the Department of Defense. That's what Musk complained about via Twitter in a matter involving his space exploration firm, SpaceX. According to Bloomberg News, Musk tweeted last month about how competitors of his space company hired an Air Force official allegedly as part of a move to secure a chunk of a $68 billion Pentagon satellite project. And in New York City, questions also rose last month concerning the employment of a former top city taxi regulator by the noted ride-sharing company Uber, a competitor in the city's big taxi business.

DeWitt, who was paid $199,000 in 2013, worked for the stem cell agency from September 2011 until this month.  She played a key role in the $70 million Alpha Clinic proposal championed by Trounson. She was also deeply involved in the $40 million stem cell genomics award that went to a Stanford consortium last January following a controversial review process. She and Trounson co-authored an article in Nature Biotechnology promoting the genomics plan.

DeWitt, who has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin, was a senior editor at Nature from 2001 to 2010. Seven months after joining CIRM, she co-founded a firm called AccendoEditing. According to her Linked In profile, the firm works with clients to “to present scientific manuscripts and grants in a clear and engaging fashion.” It also “provides insights into the review process.”

DeWitt was one of the organizers of a conference last September at the University of Oxford dealing with cancer and stem cells. Her new bosses, Blau and Nolan, were scheduled speakers along with Stanford's noted stem cell scientist Irv Weissman.

At the Baxter Laboratory, DeWitt is its director of research development. Asked last Friday about leaving CIRM, she replied via email,
“The reason I'm moving on is simply that what I consider a fantastic opportunity presented itself to me.”

She has not responded to a query Monday about her views on the subject of revolving door issues.
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Great post! As CIRM winds down, there will be more of these situations and people should be aware of potential conflicts of interest.