Monday, December 17, 2007

Sham Arguments Harm CIRM's Credibility

The release of the names of 12 institutions seeking $263 million in public money from the California stem cell agency doesn't measure up to the agency's self-professed goal of meeting the highest standards of openness and transparency.

Yes, it is a good first step, whatever its motivation. Yes, it seems to surpass the openness of the NIH. But as we have noted before CIRM is subject to far less oversight than the NIH and seems to have far greater conflicts of interests among its directors. But if the intention is to provide the basis for thoughtful comment from either the public or CIRM's important constituencies, the release of the information falls short.

All that is publicly available are names. The public, which is financing this effort, does not know how much money is being sought nor even rudimentary details of how the applicants propose to use the cash.

CIRM's position is that to release the information at this point could mean that losing institutions would be embarrassed. However, by releasing the names last week, CIRM has conceded that its position is nothing more than a sham. Presumably some of those named on Friday will lose out and be "embarrassed."

CIRM apparently decided that embarrassment was overshadowed by the need to help applicants raise matching funds for the grants before the end of the year.

It is time for CIRM to release not only the names of the institutions, but also the amounts they are seeking as well as the applications from the institutions(confidential information could be deleted).

The agency is still wrestling with the fallout from controversy about its conflicts-of-interest, which have possibly cost 10 researchers about $31 million. It is an issue that will be with CIRM for its entire existence because the conflicts are built into the agency, ironically, by law. More than a majority of the CIRM's directors have links to institutions that could benefit by this latest round of grants for lab construction. They have already set the rules and criteria for giving away the money. All of which naturally raises concerns about self-dealing or worse.

That situation is not likely to change. The only reasonable way to assure public credibility and allay suspicions is for CIRM to lay all the stem cell cards on the table. Especially since it has conceded that releasing the names is not really that embarrassing after all.

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