Friday, August 28, 2015

The California Stem Cell Agency and its Mysteries of Fiscal Alchemy

In just four business days, the $3 billion California stem cell agency is going to perform a bit of financial alchemy. But like most alchemists, its methods are less than transparent.

The case in point involves a session of the intellectual property subcommittee of the agency’s board of directors. The committee is scheduled to meet next Thursday to deal with an unknown amount of cash that the agency has given to an unidentified recipient.

According to the very limited information on the meeting agenda, the cash was once a loan. But that loan has been forgiven by the agency. Now the plan is to turn that forgiven loan into a grant.

Why? How much money is involved? What is the rationale? What is the benefit to the people of California, if any? It is all something of a mystery.

Also on the agenda are unspecified changes in the “loan election policy” for clinical awards, a program that is budgeted for $100 million this year. Again, no rationale or explanation is publicly available as of this morning.

One of the favorite words of agency’s president, Randy Mills, is clarity. He reminds folks regularly that the agency should have clarity in what it does.

Mills has indeed improved the clarity of the organization in his one-year tenure at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known. He has brought analytic and presentation skills that have opened new insights into how the organization spends the taxpayers’ billions.  The result has been an improvement in the way the agency operates.

But in this case, the agency is falling short. Its rules call for notifying the public about meetings 10 calendar days in advance of the sessions. However, cryptic agendas that raise more questions than answers do not add up to clarity. Instead, they are opaque and can generate suspicions about the conduct of the agency on the part of the public and interested parties.

Trust in government – and the stem cell agency is part of our government – is at all-time lows. It behooves the California stem cell agency to do what it can avoid feeding that distrust and to make its operations as transparent and open as possible.
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  1. David: I noticed that there is no call-in number posted for this meeting.
    In the old days before CIRM provided the public with call-in numbers for public meetings, Duane Roth used to let me listen in to the public parts of the meetings on his call in to the meeting. Is this what we have to do now- show up at one of the listed addresses?

    1. Re JFL's comment about meeting access, subcommittee meetings do offer public access at specific locations that can be found on the agendas for the sessions. But those locations should be checked in advance because the addresses may not be specific enough. The call-in numbers are given to the CIRM directors at those locations but are not generally available to the public.