Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Time to Shine More Light on CIRM

The California Stem Cell Report has sent the following letter to the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, which is meeting today in San Francisco concerning the affairs of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency.
To the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee:

The time has come for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to open its doors to more public disclosure in the interest of greater public accountability and to avoid further damage to its reputation. Such a move would enhance its performance as a credible advocate for sound scientific research and help to prevent future scandals involving its $3 billion program. I am asking your panel to make such a recommendation to CIRM.

Within the last week, Californians have seen stories in the media concerning an attempt by a CIRM director to privately influence the award of a $638,000 grant to his institution. That attempt was made at the suggestion of the chairman of the CIRM Oversight Committee, Robert Klein, who is also an attorney. His advice was in clear violation of CIRM's conflict of interest policy, a fact that he now acknowledges. Disclosure of the lobbying effort, first reported by the California Stem Cell Report, has generated calls for the resignation of Klein and the director, John Reed of the Burnham Institute. One organization, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Klein's and Reed's actions are part of a larger issue at CIRM: the conflicts of interests that are built into its structure by Prop. 71 and which the California state auditor has touched on. For example, currently a majority of its directors (Oversight Committee members) are linked to institutions that could benefit from the $227 million in lab construction grants scheduled to be given out next year. And the Oversight Committee is the group that approved the criteria for the lab grants.

CIRM has refused to disclose the names of the institutions that have applied for the grants until well after they undergo the most important stages of their review, a move that makes it impossible for the public to comment properly. It is also a case of unnecessary secrecy that only fosters suspicion and the worst sort of speculation, particularly in light of Klein's and Reed's actions.

CIRM's justification for this secrecy is weak. It does not want to embarrass any unsuccessful applicants, all of which are major public and private nonprofit institutions. It is a policy that seems to have been adopted, without due consideration, from a similar policy regarding applications from individual researchers.

However, applications for the major lab grants are much different than those from the men and women who direct stem cell research labs. The applications for lab construction funds come from huge institutions such as the University of California and other major educational and research enterprises. Their names and applications should be part of the public record. Equating the sensitivities of UC Berkeley or other likely institutional applicants for lab grants to the sensitivities of an individual researcher would seem to defy common sense. And if proprietary information exists in the application, it can easily be excised before release.

In keeping with the sense of the state auditor's report, CIRM should also make public the economic disclosure statements of the persons who review the grants. Public disclosure of those documents will assure both scientists, whose applications are being reviewed, and the public, whose money is being spent, of the essential fairness of the process.

CIRM has resisted such disclosures. It says it is already more open than the National Institutes of Health. But CIRM and the NIH are not comparable. The president and Congress can and do intervene in NIH matters and set its budget. In California, the governor and legislature are barred, for all practical purposes, from exercising such oversight because of the provisions of Prop. 71. Even the tiniest alterations in CIRM require an unprecedented, super, super majority vote of the Legislature and signature of the governor. Its funding is continuously appropriated and not subject to the normal budget process. All that means that CIRM has a special responsibility to demonstrate accountability and show the public that is performing with their best interests in mind.

I urge you to recommend to CIRM that it identify forthwith the applicants for its upcoming round of lab construction grants and to release the statements of economic interests from its panels of grant reviewers.

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