Wednesday, December 12, 2007

CIRM Directors Mull Conflict Flap

The conflict of interest controversy involving the California stem cell agency came directly before its Oversight Committee today as it wrestled with the agency's response and its impact on what was once an $85 million grant program.

The research effort was scaled back to $54 million (see item below) in the wake of alleged conflict-of-interest violations by five directors(Oversight Committee members), who also serve as heads of medical schools or research institutions.

But the agency took no further immediate action to tighten its procedures in connection with its ethical policies. However, it announced it would rewrite some portions of the conflict of interest rules to eliminate ambiguities that it believes confused some medical school deans.

Much of the morning meeting in Los Angeles was devoted to a general defense of CIRM's performance over the last three years by its chairman, Robert Klein, and its interim president, Richard Murphy. They reiterated their position that the conflict of interest violations were "innocent mistakes."

Klein said the agency has been involved in an "extraordinary effort." Murphy said, "We need to keep our critics in perspective." He said the conflict of interest problems "pale in comparison to our achievements" which are "the envy of the world."

Oversight Committee member Jeff Sheehy said, however, the problems were a "really serious matter" that should not be downplayed. He said, "I would be happier if we had more transparency."

Another Oversight Committee member, Ted Love, said the matter has been taken seriously, adding that the "media does not always properly represent things." Murphy also said he was not minimizing the problem.

Members of the Oversight Committee were especially troubled by the impact on the 10 scientists who lost out on millions of dollars through no fault of their own. But even that discussion illustrated the structural conflicts of interests that are built into CIRM by Prop. 71.

Twenty-nine persons sit on the Oversight Committee. They set the rules and criteria for giving grants to the institutions that employ them. As the directors tried to find a way to be fair to the 10 innocent researchers, CIRM's legal counsel told the committee members that only eight of those present could even discuss the issue because all the rest had legal conflicts of interest.

Later in the day, only eight were allowed to vote on adding $35 million to the $227 million lab construction grant program scheduled for next year.

The Oversight Committee meeting came only hours after the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest newspaper, editorialized on CIRM's state of affairs. The newspaper said:
"Anyone spending $3 billion in public money has to do it impeccably. When the governing board meets today, it should take this a step further by reprimanding those who flouted the rules -- and changing its policies so the public can know their identities."
The agency did reveal today the identities of the five institutions but took no further action. Klein told the California Stem Cell Report that CIRM delayed the information because it was waiting for a letter from the University of California on the matter. (Here is a link to the letter that asserts there were no violations of CIRM's ethical policy.)

The Times continued: "...(T)he Legislature could help by reconfiguring the governing board, making it smaller and balancing it with a strong contingent of elected officials and consumer watchdogs. Any change will take a 70% vote, usually a political impossibility. But the problems are nagging enough, and the stakes high enough, that the Legislature must overcome party divisions to create a leaner, more accountable institution.

"The agency has entered the exciting phase of funding research that might one day lead to new treatments. Klein and his entrepreneurial style deserve full credit for this, but he must welcome fundamental fixes and put a higher priority on running a public agency as truly public."

A footnote to today's event: Only one newspaper reporter covered today's meeting, Bradley Fikes of the North County Times in San Diego County, as well as Los Angeles TV station KTLA. One media watcher said budgetary constraints involving travel along with holiday vacation plans limited the coverage by other newspapers.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Thanks for the mention. I was surprised no other newspaper reporter was there. And you did a good job of summing up the meeting.


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