Tuesday, January 17, 2006

LA Times on Cirm: Disappointing, Arrogant, Unresponsive, But Promise Remains Strong

The Los Angeles Times today editorialized about the California stem cell agency, declaring that its first year was "especially disappointing."

The Southern California piece was one of three articles that surfaced this morning dealing with CIRM, including one in Oakland and another critical op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun.

The Times said CIRM has been arrogant, unresponsive and intransigent at times.

Nonetheless, the newspaper wrote, the promise of the agency "remains strong" and could be strengthened even more with beefier standards for ethics and accountability.
"But the oversight committee's chairman, Robert Klein, seems to be allergic to sunshine. Much of the committee's first meeting had to be scrapped when a public-interest lawyer pointed out that it failed to meet the state's open-meeting laws. The institute's first employees were drawn from the Proposition 71 campaign and Klein's stem cell charity group, ignoring the state's civil service rules on advertising for the most qualified candidates," the newspaper wrote.

"Unfortunately, the oversight committee continues to insist that members of the working groups, including the research reviewers, do not have to publicly reveal their financial interests in stem cell research. The members of these boards will make crucial recommendations about how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars, and for the public not to know whether they stand to benefit from any particular grant is unacceptable.

"The committee does stipulate that members of the working groups reveal their conflicts of interest to the committee itself, but that is inadequate. The world of stem cell research, industry and advocacy is too incestuous for such an arrangement."

Sounding a harsh note in Maryland was an opinion piece by Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland. He focused on implications of the Hwang affair. But the article also said, concerning Proposition 71,
"It entrusted control of the money to a new state agency dominated by the very institutions that stand to receive the research grants. It exempted the agency's most important policy committees from California's open meetings and conflict-of-interest laws.

"It failed to guarantee the safety and health of women who provide eggs for cloning research. It contained no provisions to ensure that intellectual property arrangements would benefit the people of California. And late last year, it was revealed that real estate millionaire Robert Klein, the prime author and funder of the initiative and the current chairman of the program, knowingly misrepresented its likely full cost to California voters by perhaps $1 billion.

"What's going on here is both a very old story and a very new one. The old story is the drive for fame, fortune and power and the willingness of some people - in this case, scientists and biotech entrepreneurs - to put their personal drives and ambitions above the common good.

"The new story is the immensity of what is at stake. The new human genetic technologies are giving scientists the power to change the nature of human life forever. They are being developed at breakneck speed. Neither public understanding nor governmental oversight has been able to keep up. Scientists and biotech corporations are playing to our deepest desires and fears in their effort to secure the commanding heights of the technology, the law and the market."

Reporter Rebecca Vesely of the Oakland Tribune reported on the progress of the agency and its plans for the next year. Her straight-forward piece covered much of the same ground as an article last week by Terri Somers of the San Diego Union Tribune.

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