Monday, February 21, 2005

Hearing the Drumbeat

It seems odd that the California stem cell agency cannot move effectively to temper the criticism that dogs it concerning conflicts of interest and accountability.

The issues have plagued CIRM since December when its first meeting was dominated by charges of impropriety and potential impropriety. Since then, Chairman Robert Klein and other oversight committee members have repeatedly stressed their intention to apply the highest standards to the conduct of the agency.

Yet the issues persist, attracting unfavorable attention in the media nationally as well is in California. The stain is not yet permanent. But the longer it exists, the harder it will be to purge. That would be a serious burden for an infant agency that must appear to be acting with propriety in order to succeed.

The latest flap surfaced last week as the result of a petition filed by Berkeley attorney Charles Halpern and Philip Lee, former chancellor of UC San Francisco. Some of the specifics in the petition are old, some new. The two, working with the Center for Genetics and Society, are seeking a 30-minute hearing before the oversight committee to air their concerns. Unless something changes, they are not likely to achieve that goal, based on the agenda for the March 1 meeting. Klein has an item on it to have the board directly delegate their petition to him.

It may be that some of CIRM’s critics simply want to cripple the agency. Halpern and Lee, however, say in their petition, "We want to see the program launched by Prop. 71 succeed."

They also say, "We stress that our focus on the conflict of interest issue is not intended to impugn the integrity of any members of the ICOC or its leaders. We believe that strict adherence to conflict of interest principles is necessary to maintain public confidence in the objectives and processes of the CIRM, and to assure that there can be no doubt that each decision of the ICOC is made exclusively on its merits."

One can understand that the drumbeat of criticism rankles Klein and others, who feel their integrity has been questioned. But testiness and defensiveness can be put aside. The appearance of brushing off ethical considerations should be avoided if CIRM is fulfill Klein’s own very high expecations.

There are a number of ways to handle issues raised by Halpern and others. One would be to create a special panel of perhaps 10 oversight committee members to hold a daylong hearing (no vote to be taken) into the issues. Ask all witnesses to submit all of their material in advance and mount it on the CIRM web site prior to the meeting. Thus the reading of lengthy statements could be avoided. Instead questions could be asked and answered, both on the part of the public and board members, which is more productive than endless readings.

It would be politic to have half of the committee consist of oversight members who are seen to have the greatest potential conflicts.

Holding such a hearing would help to eliminate allegations that critics have not been heard. It would provide useful input in developing rules on ethics and openness. And it would help the agency move forward more rapidly and successfully on its intended path.


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