Friday, January 23, 2015

The California Stem Cell Agency and Its Unnecessary Mysteries

For the second month in a row, the California stem cell agency, which sits on top of $3 billion in taxpayer cash, is playing a mystery game with the public.

Coming up next Thursday is a meeting of the 29-member board of the agency. These sessions are the most important public events involving the agency, which operates outside of normal state oversight. They deserve full transparency.

Without it, affected parties -- not to mention the people who pay the $6 billion total bill (including interest) for the stem cell research – do not have a genuine opportunity to comment and make suggestions about matters that involve their livelihoods and organizations.   

The latest problem primarily involves a cryptic agenda item for next week's board meeting that says only “consideration of the CIRM team’s determination not to present concept proposal for training program at this time.”

The agenda containing the item was posted last Saturday on the agency's Web site. The agency has not posted anything further on the matter and has not responded to a query five days ago seeking more information.

Training issues have been a subject of considerable concern and interest in the stem cell community, both at the state college level, which has received little of the agency’s cash, and universities and research institutions.

Backed by 11 top researchers, Jeanne Loring, head of the stem cell program at Scripps, has said the “Bridges” shared laboratory and training program has “provided the infrastructure upon which California’s reputation as the center of the stem cell universe was built.” (See also here.) 

Susan Baxter, executive director of the California State University’s system-wide program for biotechnology, said,
“Despite the Great Recession, Bridges graduates have succeeded in landing jobs and gaining admittance to graduate and medical schools at much higher rates than peer groups.” 
Does the training agenda item refer to the concerns of Baxter, Loring and the others? It could be a reference to the agency's high school training effort or something else entirely. It is totally unclear and unnecessarily so.

If the agency is fulfill its promise of maximum transparency, it should post ample background material on matters to be discussed when it posts the agenda 10 calendar days ahead of upcoming meetings. In the absence of that, however, it would have taken only five minutes or less to write a line specifying which training programs are up for consideration.
In addition to the mystery about the training programs, not to be found is information about proposed changes in the agency’s loan program. Those are scheduled to be approved next Thursday, only three business days from today. The changes likely will have a significant impact on businesses.  A board subcommittee was scheduled to consider them on Monday, but that meeting has been cancelled for unknown reasons. The agency has not responded to a query on when the session will be rescheduled, but presumably it will happen before the board meeting on Thursday.

Last month, the agency also created a similar mystery. It involved what turned out to be a $50 million program that deserved more timely attention from affected parties and the public.

In years past, the agency was infamous for failing to post material for its meetings in a timely fashion. Even board members sometimes complained about not having information. Sometimes meetings were postponed.

Since Jonathan Thomas became chairman in 2011, the situation has improved.  Randy Mills, the new president of the agency, is stressing "clarity" in what the agency does. However, the mysteries of the past two months do not auger well. The agency can and should do better. 

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