Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Moral Seduction and CIRM's $24 Million Grant Giveaway

Some of the top stem cell scientists in the nation today began the arduous task of sifting through more than 200 pleas for about $24 million in research grants from the California stem cell agency, a process that is being conducted in secret with no public disclosure of the financial interests of the reviewers.

Is the process fair? Who is seeking the money? Do the reviewers have conflicts of interest? Will grant applicants with ties to CIRM's benefactors receive special treatment? Are applicants with representatives on the CIRM Oversight Committee moving to the head of the line? All of this is impossible to tell. And it all places CIRM in an unnecessarily vulnerable position because the agency has assumed responsibility for policing the secret statements of economic and other professional and personal interests of the scientists who review the grant applications.

Alternatives exist. Applicant names and their institutions could be publicly identified. The statements of economic interests by grant reviewers could be made public.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, today told the grant reviewers in San Francisco that Connecticut is leading the way in terms of openness and transparency on the grant reviews. Simpson said in a statment:
"California's stem cell institute will tell you that they epitomize a transparent and publicly accountable operation, but it's simply not true. In fact they won't even tell you who applied for public money or with whom they are affiliated."
The foundation's press release "contrasted California's policy, where only grant recipients are identified, to Connecticut's process that discloses all applicants identities and affiliations and other key information."

The press release continued:
"Last week (Connecticut's) Stem Cell Advisory Committee awarded $20 million in research grants. There were 21 grants awarded from a pool of 70 applications. The grants were discussed and awarded at a public meeting where pplicants were identified by name. A proposed project's scientific score was listed along with comments from peer reviewers.

"Applications for grants are public records when they are made, except that proprietary information can be redacted.

"'California's stem cell overseers talk about transparency and public accountability,' said Simpson. 'Connecticut's leaders don't just talk the talk; they walk the walk. We should be ashamed of ourselves.'"
Recently we discussed, via email, some of the issues of openness and transparency at CIRM with Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and one of the key authors of California's public disclosure law.

Stern told the California Stem Cell Report:
"I totally agree with you that the statements of economic interests (of grant reviewers) should be public. It is the only way that Californians can have confidence that there are no conflicts of interest."(For more from Stern see the item below.)
No one is talking about outright corruption on the part of the reviewers or CIRM. At this point, the issue is more subtle.

Some top thinkers on conflicts of interest call it "moral seduction," a process "that encourages complacency among professionals" and is "illustrated by the common assertion that 'we aren’t doing anything wrong.'"

In a working paper on conflicts, Don A. Moore of Carnegie Mellon University, Philip E. Tetlock of the Haas School of Business and Lloyd Tanlu and Max H. Bazerman, both of the Harvard Business School, also write:
"Although it is tempting to be cynical about motivation, and to assume that professionals always realize when they are succumbing to conflicts of interest, we suggest this judgment is too harsh. Putting the most Machiavellian fringes of professional communities to the side, we suggest that the majority of professionals are unaware of the gradual accumulation of pressures on them to slant their conclusions, a process we characterize as moral seduction. Most professionals feel that their conclusions are justified and that they are being unfairly maligned by ignorant or demagogic outsiders who raise concerns about conflicts of interest."
Last week the identities of foundations and individuals (see item below) that are loaning CIRM tens of millions of dollars were released. Is it ridiculous to wonder whether grant applicants linked to those CIRM benefactors might receive some special consideration? Only CIRM will know, based on its current rules. Will the agency act to intervene to prevent an abuse of the review process but at the same time offend a multimillion dollar donor? No one can tell.

Embryonic stem cell research is already fraught with controversy. California's $3 billion stem cell agency is riddled with built-in conflicts of interest – all legal. It operates like no other state department, uncontrolled by the governor or the legislature. And this week involves only the first look at applications for research grants, which are expected to pour out at a rate of $300 million annually. It behooves CIRM to go beyond its existing disclosure rules and open its important grant decision-making process to more public scrutiny.

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