Tuesday, May 19, 2015

California Stem Cell Audit: Praise for Mills but More Work Needed on IP, Conflicts of Interest

The California stem cell agency this week received good marks for changes made by its new president, but it is also being told that it needs to improve how it tracks potential royalties and how it prevents grant reviewer conflicts of interest.

A "performance audit" by Moss-Adams, a Seattle business consulting firm, made 12 recommendations for the $3 billion research enterprise. One of the 12 was to implement the unfulfilled recommendations made by Moss-Adams three years ago.  Seven of the 24 from that audit still need more action, the firm said.

On Thursday, the agency's governing board is scheduled to discuss the latest audit at a meeting in Berkeley.  The study is required by state law every three years. The agency's scientific performance, however,  is specifically excluded from being examined. Moss-Adams is scheduled to receive $230,000 from the agency for the audit, which was for the 2013-14 year.

On Sunday, the California Stem Cell Report covered the deficiencies involving disclosures of the financial interests of grant reviewers.

Other areas of concern included the need for better tracking of intellectual property that could mean royalties for the state, more timely review of progress reports from grantees, more timely, formal evaluation of employees and keeping up-to-date on technology related to grant management and agency efficiency.

Under the subject of "commendations," Moss-Adams said that CIRM had "many strengths."  The consultant said the agency has made "significant strides" in three areas: the grant management system, grants process improvements and "organizational culture."

The grants process comment referred to CIRM 2.0, the fast-track funding program initiated by Randy Mills since he became president a year ago. The organizational culture commendation also involved Mills' efforts, but touched indirectly and delicately on the resignation of Robert Klein as chairman and the election of Jonathan Thomas to replace him in June of 2011. 

Moss-Adams reported "enhanced seamlessness" between the president's and chairman's offices. Proposition 71, which created the agency, dictated a controversial dual executive situation that has troubled the agency since its inception.

The audit found significant deficiencies involving the treatment of CIRM employees, some of which have been addressed in a positive way already by Mills. One example cited by the audit involved performance evaluations that are tied to pay increases. It said that evaluations that were scheduled to occur in 2013-14 did not actually take place until January of this year.  

Moss-Adams said the agency also needs to do better in monitoring and protecting its intellectual property (IP), which could generate royalties. Without tight tracking of the IP and inventions funded by CIRM research, the state could lose out on revenue. Backers of Proposition 71 told voters in 2004 that the state could receive more than $1 billion in royalties from CIRM research. So far, none has resulted. 

Moss-Adams said that royalties are now more possible because the agency is backing late stage research that is more likely to make it into the market place. 

Moss-Adams said more work was needed on implementing the seven recommendations from three years ago, including those involving IP, the transition plan to deal with the possible demise of the agency and a grants outcome database. 
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