Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sunshine Needed on the Secret Names of Stem Cell Grant Applicants

Frothy rhetoric has surrounded the California stem cell agency since its inception, including predictions of a new California gold rush.

Today the rhetoric approached the reality – least in one regard. About 350 latter-day argonauts – stem cell scientists in this case -- have notified CIRM of their intentions to seek a chunk of the $100 million that the agency is going to be handing out in its first wave of research grants.

Who are these stem cell scientists? What institutions are involved? That is a secret legally protected by CIRM, even if the institutions seeking grants are other state financed entities such as the University of California. The information is "confidential," according to CIRM.

But this is also a case where CIRM's own rhetoric falls far short of reality. CIRM Chair Robert Klein has repeatedly extolled CIRM's policies as meeting the highest standards of openness and transparency. Yet it is hard to comprehend what public good is served by keeping the names of the scientists and their institutions secret. Would they have decided not to seek grants if their names were part of a public record? Highly unlikely.

The grant review process already has problems with excessive privacy. The scientists, for example, who review the grant requests do not have to disclose publicly their financial interests. Will they support grant requests from friendly colleagues? Will they protect their own interests by rejecting a grant from a scientist with a competing approach? Will they favor a grant that would aid a company in which they have some sort of interest, financial or otherwise? The public will not know. Perhaps CIRM will. The agency requires its reviewers to submit economic and other disclosures to the agency itself, but these again are secret documents.

We asked longtime observers of the CIRM scene, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumers Rights and the Center for Genetics and Society, if they had any comment on the secrecy involving the letters of intent. The California First Amendment Coalition was queried as well.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the foundation, responded:

"Frankly, I don't understand what useful purpose is served by CIRM's penchant for secrecy. Much needed light would be shed on the entire process by saying who is thinking of applying for grants.

"And I don't understand why there would be any fear of embarrassing people who don't get an award. If you've got 350 applicants and are going to award at most 55 grants, that means you're funding less than 15 percent. There's nothing to be ashamed of in missing the cut when competition is that tough.

"Naming the applicants and their institutions has the added benefit of telling the public a lot about the hopes and aspirations of the faculty at California's universities. That's important stuff to know, if you're sending a kid off to college or thinking about it.

"In my personal life, I don't give money to people unless I know who they are, why they want it and what they plan to do with it. It shouldn't be any different with the taxpayers $3 billion.

"Bottom line: You want our money. Tell us who you are and ask for it in public."
According to an analysis of the state Public Record Act by the California attorney general's office, "...(A)ccess to information concerning the conduct of the public's business is a fundamental and necessary right for every person in the state."

The attorney general said that case law on the act has "emphasized that its primary purpose is to give the public an opportunity to monitor the functioning of their government. The greater and more unfettered the public official's power, the greater the public's interest in monitoring the governmental action."

Unfettered is a good word to describe CIRM, which is virtually alone among state agencies in its independence. Neither the governor nor the legislature, for example, can currently touch its budget or modify its decisions.

We believe CIRM has good intentions behind its disclosure policies. But in this case, good intentions are not enough.

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