Friday, September 04, 2015

Openness and Transparency: Backsliding at California Stem Cell Agency

$34 million Alpha Clinics involved
Information failure on proposal
Discourages public/researcher participation
California’s stem cell agency this past couple of weeks skidded significantly backwards in its efforts to improve clarity and transparency in its $3 billion operation.

The latest example came this week and involved its ambitious, $34 million Alpha stem cell clinic program at four major California institutions: the City of Hope, UCLA and UC Irvine and UC San Diego. 

A proposed, multimillion dollar project involving the effort was scheduled for action next Tuesday by the Science Subcommittee of the agency’s governing board.  As of early this morning -- only one full business day from the meeting -- the agency had released only nine words about it to the public. Here is the full text:
Consideration of concept plan for Alpha Clinics Accelerating Center.” 
Opaque is the only way to describe the process. And it was bound to create issues with affected parties, which it has in this case.

Such cryptic notices make it impossible for the public to comment intelligently or otherwise, given the lack of information. The failure to provide the information in a timely fashion also feeds suspicion and distrust.

Clarity is one of the watch words that Randy Mills has invoked in his 15-month tenure at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known. He has done much to sharpen CIRM’s focus and provide additional clarity through his analysis of the agency’s work.  

But failing to provide material in a timely fashion removes more than the shine on his efforts. The meetings of the agency’s directors are CIRM’s most important public events.  They are where patients, advocates, researchers, biotech executives and even the unwashed public can come together to hear and see the board in action and discuss issues informally with directors and the CIRM staff. Attendance should be encouraged – not discouraged. Which is what happens when important information is withheld from the public.

Last Friday the California Stem Cell Report carried an item on another mysterious agenda item, one that involved forgiveness of agency loans and potential royalty revenue, something that was promised in the election campaign that created the agency in 2004. 

That too was a case of missing information until it was much too late for the public or affected parties to make thoughtful comments. (See here and here.)

CIRM can and should do better than this. 

(The California Stem Cell Report this morning asked CIRM for comment on the failure to provide information on the Alpha proposal scheduled for Tuesday.  About ninety minutes later, CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons responded, saying that the item was now being postponed "to allow more time for refinement and consideration.")

(By this afternoon, the agency had also posted the first explanation of another cryptic item on the Tuesday agenda for the Science Subcommittee. This one would eliminate the specific schedule for RFAs in the upcoming basic research (discovery) and translational RFAs. The reason for the change is to provide more flexibility.)

(Editor's note: The last paragraph of this item was added several hours after the original posting.)
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