Monday, January 08, 2007

More Disclosure in Billion Dollar Giveaway Is In CIRM's Best Interest

California's $3 billion stem cell giveaway program began another important step today – one that is cloaked in nearly total secrecy despite the fact that it involves public funds.

Scientists in San Francisco are reviewing applications for $80 million in major grants. CIRM says their actions are only recommendations. However, the reality is that they are defacto decisions that are unlikely to be overturned by the agency's Oversight Committee.

A certain amount of confidentiality is to be expected, but the agency has gone overboard to protect the tender sensitivities of those seek the funds. It is a practice that will serve the agency poorly should questions arise – as they are certain to do over the next decade – about the propriety of its grant-making process.

We have written repeatedly about failings in transparency and disclosure at the agency. It is also a topic of concern to a number of newspapers and watchdog groups. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, Ca., authored an op-ed piece that appeared today in the Oakland Tribune and other California newspapers.

He wrote:
"Everyone concerned claims they want a transparent process to ensure that awards are based on scientific merit, not favoritism and cronyism. Despite mouthing high-minded slogans, the institute's leaders too frequently miss the mark whenever there is a clear opportunity to build faith in its processes by being completely open.

"In California we don't know who applied for the grants or their affiliations. Our stem cell institute need only look to Connecticut where applicants' names and pertinent details are public record for a model of how to conduct the public's business.

"Fortunately at least one California scientist understands the importance of a completely transparent process when dealing with public funds. Connecticut's stem cell peer review committee — the equivalent of California's grants working group — is chaired by Dr. Leslie P. Weiner, professor of neurology at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine.

"The California stem cell institute won't identify the 70 researchers from 23 unidentified institutions vying for 25 grants under the Comprehensive Research Grants program.

"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. Another opportunity for transparency and to build public faith in the institute's procedures is being squandered."
So wrote Mr. Simpson, who has followed CIRM's activities for more than a year and is a supporter of ESC research.

As for us at the California Stem Cell Report, if we were one of the scientists making decisions on the grants, we would want to have the maximum amount of openness, including disclosure of the financial interests of our fellow reviewers. Without transparency, it is all too easy for enemies of embryonic stem cell research to impugn the integrity of reviewers and to insuinate – as they most certainly will do -- that something other than good science is playing a role in handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in California taxpayer funds.

Embryonic stem cell research generates more than enough controversy. It is past time for the California stem cell agency to take steps to protect itself and its grant reviewers -- all of whom come the tiny circle of stem cell scientists around the world -- from the inevitable charges of self-dealing, cronyism and favoritism.

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