Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Mystery Spending at CIRM's Scientific Conference

The California stem cell agency will stage its first-ever scientific conference this weekend in San Francisco with expenses that run to about $9,000 per featured participant.

The two-day event is budgeted at a total of $215,000 and is designed to help identify scientific priorities for the first phase of stem cell research by the agency. Internationally known researchers are flying in for the session in Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

Presumably CIRM is picking up their expenses, but the agency has refused to release the spending plan for the conference until some indefinite date in the future. On the surface, the conference seems to be a worthwhile endeavor. In business terms, it is good marketing move. It will help focus international attention on CIRM and help generate credibility for the agency as it hits up potential purchasers of the bond anticipation notes that it needs.

But $215,000 is a large sum for an agency that has been vocal about its need to conserve its financial resources given the court challenges it faces.

How is that money being spent? No one outside the agency knows. Is there something dubious going on? Probably not, but the agency's refusal to share – in a timely fashion --public information about its activities does raise questions.

CIRM says it will disclose the conference budget when it is "final," whatever that means. The conference begins in two days. One would think CIRM would have "finalized" its conference spending plans by now.

One version of the agenda shows 25 outside speakers (excluding CIRM officials), amounting to a per capita expense of nearly $9,000. We have been told only that there are no honoraria, but little else.

CIRM's response to the information follows a time-honored and dubious tradition in some bureaucracies that stall when they receive requests for information. Often, the techniques are used because the information contains something embarrassing. Stalling allows time to cover up the worst disclosures, impart a favorable spin or simply out wait the inquiring party. Other times, the stall amounts to a mindless reflex by an organism that simply wants to repel any intruder.

Often the stall works. Information – like fish – does not improve with age. Time passes, and the information becomes less relevant.

It is difficult to understand why the agency is refusing to release the information. It is certainly not in CIRM's best interest to raise unnecessary questions about how it conducts the public business.

The stem cell agency's actions in this case fall woefully short of the promises by stem cell chairman Robert Klein to meet the highest standards of openness and transparency.

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