Monday, February 13, 2006

What's in a Name? Ten Million Dollars or More

California is not likely to see something called the Pfizer/CIRM Research Scholars Program, but the stem cell agency is on its way to peddling naming rights in the world's largest stem cell research effort.

Peddling probably is not the most generous way to describe the effort, which seems to be an essential ingredient in assuring funding of programs this year. A more euphemistic way to say it would be: Providing an incentive to make a $10 million gift to CIRM.

The Oversight Committee moved forward with the program last week after stem cell chairman Robert Klein said it would apply only to grants of $10 million or more. Naming rights would not be available to purchasers of bond anticipation notes.

Initial screening of the naming candidates would be done by the executive committee of CIRM in private. The names of candidates would then come before the Oversight Committee in a public session for approval or rejection.

Generally board members last week favored the program, declaring it was a good example of public/private partnerships. Klein said that universities have naming programs for lectureships, fellowships and buildings. Oversight Committee member Jeff Sheehy noted the NIH has a naming program for one of its grant efforts.

During his discussion of the plan, Klein implied that he has a potential donor who is very interested in a naming opportunity.

The naming proposal was discussed publicly as early as August during a Governance Subcommittee meeting (see page 66 of the transcript). It came up again late in the day at an Oversight Committee meeting September. It was then that it encountered its only serious opposition(see page 315 of the transcript).

Gayle Wilson, who is no longer a member of the Oversight Committee, said she did not know of other state agencies with similar programs outside of academic institutions. The wife of former Gov. Pete Wilson said, "I don't think it's a good idea. I think we'll be blasted for it."

Tina Nova, another Oversight Committee member and president of Genoptix, a San Diego biotech and lab firm, said,
"I can see a lot of downside because, as we all know, people are constantly trying to figure out what are the motivations, what are the hidden agendas. At the end of the day, people who are trying to support this initiative in a pure sense ought to be doing it for the benefit of seeing the research advance and not for the benefit of seeing their name associated with fellows who are trained. So I think I'm probably more cautious because I do wonder if at the end of the day we could create more challenges and if it really does help us that much."

Nova did not express opposition to the plan on Friday, but she may have left the meeting by the time it came up late in the session. (It is difficult to keep track of the comings and goings of the 29 committee members, particularly late in the meetings.)

Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society voiced the only public opposition to the plan. He said it could "open the door to real or perceived conflicts of interest." For example, he said it would be inappropriate to grant naming rights to Geron, a California stem cell firm. Klein said he was in "heated agreement" on that position.

Our judgment: In a perfect world, CIRM should not do this. But it needs the money and this is relatively benign, although experience tells us that bigtime donors generally expect a quid pro quo. Sometimes they are innocuous (say front row seats at the exciting Oversight Committee meetings). Other times, CIRM officials may have to vigorously resist inappropriate overtures from the $10 million donors. But that is part of the public responsibilities of CIRM executives and board members. Failure to do so will ultimately surface (there are no secrets in government) and embarrass the agency and the officials personally.

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