Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Inside the Stem Cell Agency's Spending Plans

The public is finally getting a good look at the budget of California’s $6 billion stem cell agency, about nine months after it began work.

The information, however, was posted online only a few days ago for a CIRM meeting that begins at 3 p.m. today in downtown Los Angeles. That makes it virtually impossible for the thousands of patient advocates, scientists, legislators, biotech firms, research organizations and other interested parties to make an informed comment on the agency’s spending plans for today’s hearing.

We assume that is not the intent of the agency. Its chairman, Robert Klein, has repeatedly promised the highest standards of openness and transparency, even touting them as recently as last week in The Sacramento Bee. What the agency has actually done is far different, which creates concerns about reality gaps in the agency’s other affairs.

But to the matter at hand – the budget of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which is scheduled to hand out $3 billion in stem cell research grants (financed by another $3 billion in interest on state bonds) over the next 10 years.

CIRM is in a bit of a pickle because lawsuits have effectively blocked the issuance of its bonds, meaning it has no major source of revenue to pay its 17 employees or to pay for its Internet access, among other things. Instead the California state agency is relying largely on a $5 million grant from the Dolby Foundation and a $3 million loan from the state. In other words, CIRM may be the first California governmental agency on the dole.

The agency’s spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1 has three scenarios. The budget totals range from about $6 million to about $8 million. CIRM reported it spent $2.6 million during 2004-2005, although it did not effectively begin operations until about January.

The staff report on the budget recommended that CIRM directors approve the most conservative scenario, which assumes no issuance of bonds and no additional funds beyond the state loan and the Dolby money. Under that plan, no stem cell grants would be made during 2005-2006. If no additional money becomes available, the staff report said “CIRM will take action” to continue operations. No explanation was given for what that means.

The second budget alternative assumes sale of nearly $22 million in bond anticipation notes and would provide for $15.6 million in training grants. The third alternative assumes $100 million in bond proceeds and major grant dispersal.

The barebones budget projects 20 employees by Oct. 1 but no more. It provides $215,000 for CIRM’s two-day international stem cell conference in San Francisco. Working groups would be funded with $331,000. The biggest single contract -- $480,000 -- is for legal advice from the Remcho, Johansen & Purcell law firm of San Leandro, Ca. It is followed by the Edelman PR firm’s $283,000. The amounts are for the current fiscal year. Their total contracts are for $520,000 and $378,000 respectively, which includes both the past and current fiscal years.

The other two budget scenarios assume as many as 35 employees as well as $250,000 for a contract to acquire services to help CIRM develop a “strategic plan.” No details were provided on the nature of those services. Under its most generous scenario, CIRM also would stage another scientific conference at a cost of $125,000.

Today’s budget hearing is before CIRM’s Governance Subcommittee. Its recommendations are expected to go before the Oversight Committee on Sept. 9.

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