Monday, July 09, 2007

Conflicts at CIRM: The 90 Percent Test

About ninety percent of the $209 million handed out so far by the California stem cell agency has gone to institutions that have "representatives" on the board that approves the funding.

The grants have gone for training new stem cell scientists, funding research and remodeling laboratories.

The group that approves the money is the 29-member Oversight Committee. Fourteen members of that committee have close links to the institutions that have received about $190 million in grants.

None of this is illegal but it illuminates the nature of the built-in conflicts of interest on the board. Prop. 71 created the situation. Nearly all the institutions in California that could be suitable recipients of stem cell research have some sort of representation on the decision-making board. The measure spelled out, for example, that five executive officers from University of California medical schools have seats on the board. It also stipulated that four executive officers from California research institutions sit on the Oversight Committee. The group would be hard pressed to come up with a long list of other institutions that would make suitable candidates for hefty stem cell funding.

Members of the Oversight Committee are barred from voting on grants to their institutions, and CIRM goes to considerable lengths to make sure that does not happen. However, all members of the committee can vote on the rules and standards for making the grants. And this week, a working group of CIRM is scheduled to devise rules for $220 million in grants for major labs at California institutions. Those standards will help establish, among other things, whether the money will be accessible to smaller institutions and spread geographically around the state or even whether that is a good idea.

While some have deplored the conflicts on the board, the situation is not likely to change soon. Prop. 71 can only be modified by another vote of the people or by a super, supermajority vote in the legislature and approval of the governor.

In the absence of a change, the Oversight Committee's structure and actions make it even clearer that CIRM should operate with a maximum of disclosure and openness, something the committee sometimes feels uncomfortable with.

Here are the names of the members of the Oversight Committee with links to institutions that have received grants and the size of the grants. Some members directly represent their institutions, such as the deans. Others, such as Sherry Lansing, have close links to an institution but serve as the result of some other designation. Lansing is a University of California regent, but serves on the board as a patient advocate.

David Baltimore, president emeritus Caltech, $2 million; Robert Birgeneau, chancellor UC Berkeley, $5.5 million; David Brenner, dean UC San Diego medical school, $17.7 million; Susan V. Bryant, dean School of Biological Science UC Irvine, $17.5 million; Michael A. Friedman, president City of Hope, $357,978; Brian E. Henderson, dean USC medical school, $9 million; David A. Kessler, dean UC San Francisco medical school, $30 million; Sherry Lansing, UC regent, 10 UC campuses have received grants; Gerald S. Levey, dean UCLA medical school, $15.8 million; Richard A. Murphy, president Salk Institute, $8.9 million; Philip Pizzo, dean Stanford medical school, $31 million; Claire Pomeroy, dean UC Davis medical school, $11 million; John C. Reed, president Burnham Institute, $17 million, and Oswald Steward, chair of the Reeve, Irvine Research Center, UC Irvine, as noted under Bryant, the campus has received $17. 5 million.

The amounts could be larger, for example, if we included the $8 million in grants to Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, which has close ties with USC. Or the $10 million to the Gladstone Institute, which has ties to UC San Francisco.

Short biographies of members of the Oversight Committee can be found here. More specifics on the size and nature of the grants can be found here(see the list at the end of the press release.


  1. Anonymous4:40 PM

    The list of Bios lists only 27 Oversight Committee members of the 29 supposedly there. Why is this?

    How long do the committee members serve? Is there a mechanism in place for rotation, so as to inject new perspective into the grant review process?

    As a patient advocate I very much appreciate transparency and true innovation vs cronyism.

  2. Anonymous1:28 PM

    I don't see this as cronyism. It is a consequence of having representatives from the leading scientific institutions in California (and the world!).

    Just look at the list of institutions represented: Caltech, UCSD, USC,UCLA,UCSF, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Burnham, UC Irvine, City of Hope,UC Davis, Salk... These are the places where the science is done.

    What is the alternative? Should the funds be given to Mira Mesa College or UC Merced to start new programs? or will patients most benefit by getting the funds the he best scientists availabile?

    Which research institutions do you think are not represented and are being slighted?

  3. The writer of the comment above may have missed the following sentence in the "90 percent" item.

    "The group (the Oversight Committee) would be hard pressed to come up with a long list of other institutions that would make suitable candidates for hefty stem cell funding."

    Implicit in our "90 percent" item is our contention that Prop. 71 is a flawed measure. It stipulates that the top executives of the institutions that stand to benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars have a major influence on the writing of the rules under which their institutions receive those funds. Then those executives and their sympathetic colleagues, who are basically all members of the same club, divide up nearly all of the money. Is that the most appropriate or ethical way to give away $3 billion in public funds? Whatever the answer, it is moot. No changes are likely to occur in that procedure short of a major scandal. But it does mean that transparency and openness are of vital importance concerning CIRM.

    And although the situation is sympathetic to recipient institutions, some tension exists between smaller institutions and larger ones about carving up the fatted calf. See our "$85 million" item for one example.

    We should note that with the exception of the shared lab grants, the names of losing applicants for about $150 million in grants are shrouded in secrecy by CIRM along with the nature of the research they proposed. The agency says that is to avoid embarrassing the losers, among other reasons. The secrecy also prevents the public or other interested parties to see what institutions and type of research are being rejected. Nor do we know what sort of special interests are represented by the grant reviewers, whose own disclosure statements are banned from public view.

  4. Regarding Faye's question above, here is the language from Prop. 71 regarding the appointments.

    "(1) The members appointed pursuant to paragraphs (1), (3), (4),
    and (5) of subdivision (a) shall serve eight-year terms, and all other members shall serve six-year terms. Members shall serve a maximum of two terms.
    (2) If a vacancy occurs within a term, the appointing authority shall appoint a replacement member within 30 days to serve the remainder of the term.
    (3) When a term expires, the appointing authority shall appoint a member within 30 days. ICOC members shall continue to serve until their replacements are appointed.

    It is my understanding that Prop. 71 does not spell out grounds for removal of ICOC members, although some sections of state law may apply in the case of criminal misconduct.

    Here is a link to the text of Prop. 71, which really takes to a lawyer to understand completely.

    We are checking on reason for only having 27 bios posted.

  5. Anonymous3:26 PM

    Your point from the article was not lost on me. I think was reacting to the term 'cronyism'. It seems a bit harsh for the situation.

    The concerns that you hold for CIRM are shared throughout scientific research. The system of peer-review of publications and grants has very similar issues, except there is even a lower degree of transparency provided.

    Similarly, the degree transparency provided in general scientific research is also a concern. At the stage of grant funding, few scientists want their project ideas distributed. If they received funding, fine---then they can move forward, but if they don't receive funding (as is the case for many revolutionary ideas), they shouldn't be subject to poaching by less insightful scientists, with more resources.

    I do agree that a balance must be struck between having the expert scientists fund themselves, and having scientifically uninformed pure politicians make the choices.

  6. It appears that I am suffering from confusion. Anonymous seemed to be commenting on Faye's comment. I took Anonymous' post as more of a comment on the original item itself. Yes, cronyism is a strong term but not entirely unwarranted in this situation. I avoided the use it, however, in the original post. The word conjures up strong images of self-dealing that can get in the way of understanding other issues.

    On the question about the number of bios, one is not posted, that of David Brenner, dean of the UC San Diego medical school, and a more recent addition to the board. Dale Carlson, spokesman for the agency, is, I am sure, hot on the case at this point. The 29th seat is vacant because of the death of Leon Thal. The governor is late in filling that vacancy.


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