Thursday, August 24, 2006

CIRM Replies Re Public Disclosure by Grant Reviewers

Dale A. Carlson, the new chief communications officer for the California stem cell agency, is differing with an earlier item "CIRM, disclosure and conflicts" on the California Stem Cell Report.

Here are his comments verbatim:
"On Tuesday, August 22, you wrote: 'Putting the public universities aside, we suspect that nearly all California agencies require public disclosure of financial interests as opposed to 'secret' disclosure, which is what CIRM does with its reviewers. We base on that on several decades of experience watching California public agencies, but we could be wrong.'

"You are wrong. California public officials are indeed required to disclose their financial interests – only their financial interests – and to make those disclosures public, as specified by the Political Reform Act (PRA). CIRM staff and members of the ICOC are subject to and complying with those requirements.

"Members of CIRM’s working groups are not public officials. They are advisors, not decision-makers. The distinction is clear and well-defined by the PRA, by the Fair Political Practices Commission and by the courts. Like members of advisory bodies and committees at other state agencies, they are therefore not subject to the requirements of the Political Reform Act. Indeed, as a matter of law, advisors to state agencies – including CIRM – are not required to disclose any information about their personal, professional, or financial interests, to the agency or to the public.

"CIRM working group members are, however, subject to disclosure requirements adopted by the ICOC, pursuant to the mandate of Proposition 71.

"The ICOC requires CIRM advisors to disclose financial interests as well as personal and professional ties to grant applicants. We have a more complete picture of the potential conflicts of interests facing our advisors than the public has of any California official subject to the PRA.

"Our advisors’ disclosure statements are available to state auditors. If we find violations of our policies, the discovery will be reported to the legislature, along with corrective actions to ensure they are not repeated.

"Our conflict of interest policies, including our disclosure requirements for advisors, go beyond the requirements of the law, and beyond the practices of other state agencies, including the universities. If there are stronger policies in force, they’ve yet to be identified.

"The success of the CIRM research program and its ability to maintain the confidence of the people of California depends critically upon the agency’s ability to fund the highest quality research proposals, chosen without bias. We want to attract the best people we can find to help evaluate research proposals, and to ensure that the ICOC has sufficient information to make the best decisions possible.

"Our conflict of interest policies strike an appropriate balance, between the public’s confidence in the integrity of our decision-making and the public value of having the country’s best experts involved in the review of grant proposals."
Carlson raises a number of interesting issues, but he does not convince us that CIRM's disclosure rules for grant reviewers "go beyond the rules of other state agencies." Much more can and will be said concerning CIRM and disclosure, but CIRM and the California Stem Cell Report differ fundamentally on one central issue. We consider the grant reviewers de facto decision makers. Yes, legally they are advisors and make only "recommendations." But given the nature of such governmental agencies as CIRM, it is unlikely that reviewer recommendations will be overturned by the Oversight Committee in any significant number of cases. If only because the Oversight Committee will soon have no reviewers if it consistently rejects their recommendations.

We do believe that CIRM's disclosure rules go beyond the usual requirements elsewhere in the nation, as do a number of its other policies. Indeed, CIRM has become a benchmark for other states as well as other nations on stem cell policies.

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