One of the more admirable aspects of the California stem cell agency’s plan for spending its last $900 million is its attention to careful measurement of the agency’s own performance.
The “success metrics” are tucked away at the end of the agency’s new, 47-page strategic plan. They lay out the criteria for determining how well each team at the agency is doing. The metrics range from the number of conflict of interest appeals to the number of clinical trials completed at Alpha clinics. Based on decades of experience with state agencies, the California Stem Cell Report can attest that such attention to performance is rare among state departments.
On Saturday, the agency posted on its Web site the agenda for the meeting, a good 11 days ahead of the session in Millbrae, near San Francisco International Airport. The agency plans to give away millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions. It will review the status of its ambitious and risky clinical trial program, which has seen a sharp upsurge in the last year or two. At least that is what can be deduced from the cryptic agenda items, the longest of which consists of only 26 words.
Total missing, as of this writing, are any documents supplying the details essential for understanding what the agency is actually doing.
The board meetings are the single most important public events of the agency. The agency professes to want to see greater public turnout at the sessions. But without adequate notice and some sort of meaningful information, the public, stem cell firms, scientists and patient advocates cannot make plans to attend the meetings even if they might have a deep impact on their lives.
On Feb. 9, Kevin McCormack wrote on the agency's blog about a CIRM meeting dealing with gene editing. He said,
“(Bioethicist) Alta Charo said this is not just a question for scientists, but something that could potentially affect everyone and so there is a real need to engage as many groups as possible in discussing it
"‘How and to what extent do you involve patient advocates, members of the disability rights community and social justice community – racial or economic or geographic. This is why we need these broader conversations, so we include all perspectives as we attempt to draw up guidelines and rules and regulations.’”
Those sentiments pretty much apply to all that the agency does. It is spending $6 billion of California taxpayers’ money, including interest, on research that is yet to produce a commercial therapy, despite the facile promises of the ballot campaign that created it in 2004. It is financing experiments in areas that are new to medicine, some of which involve serious risk and ethical considerations.
All of which might seem to be issues that would engage many persons and enterprises. But the best way to discourage involvement by those not embedded in the agency is to withhold information until it is too late to respond. If interested parties don’t know what is going on, how can they offer suggestions and criticism, some of which might be useful and help the agency succeed in its endeavors? Not to mention helping to build support for continued funding beyond 2020, when the agency expects to run out of cash.
Additionally, the agency basically hides the schedule of its public meetings on its Web site. They are virtually invisible on the agency’s home page, buried at the bottom in teeny lettering under a heading of “about CIRM” -- one of 11 subjects such as “mission” and “history.”
In many ways, CIRM is more than amply open and transparent. Its board meetings are audiocast on the Internet and by phone. Its committee sessions are now available live online as well, an improvement that began during the last few months. Transcripts of the sessions are also available online, albeit sometimes months after the sessions.
The CIRM Web site is laden with a variety of material. The agency’s excellent blog, The Stem Cellar, produces daily reports that chronicle CIRM affairs as well as research developments elsewhere. Interested persons can sign up for email alerts on various CIRM matters. Eventually, most of background information on board meeting agendas is posted online, although sometimes only a day or two ahead of the session.
Nonetheless, CIRM can and should do a better job of telling California what its governing board is up to and what the agency is thinking and doing. One key and long neglected tool is to provide more detailed information -- well in advance -- about the issues that come before the 29-member board that hands out the cash and establishes the priorities for one of the most ambitious stem cell programs in the world.