Monday, December 10, 2007

Victims and Scapegoats: Focusing on the Facts

The conflict-of-interest mess and its ramifications at the California stem cell agency have obscured two important facts. The victims in the latest episode are 10 talented California researchers, who appeared to be on the verge of collecting $25 million from CIRM. And the creation of that situation lies at the feet of the CIRM directors who signed letters on behalf of those researchers – not the CIRM staff that created the grant application.

To its discredit, CIRM is pointing to its staff in assigning responsibility for actions taken by at least four medical school deans, who should have known better. The application for the faculty award grants was abundantly clear. It required a letter from a dean OR a department head, language that seems to have been designed to accommodate the ethical issues facing medical schools that have representatives on the board. The conflict of interest language was straight forward: Directors must not attempt to influence the awarding of grants. All of that was clear to other medical school deans on CIRM's board who did not sign the letter(see the "Deflecting" item below.)

CIRM's efforts to shift attention away from directors is a classic response on the part of businesses and governmental agencies when they become mired in a crisis that threatens their leadership. Find a faceless, lower level scapegoat and sacrifice it. And hope the problem will go away.

In this case, CIRM's staff identified and caught the problem. The staff also identified the problem in the case of John Reed and his lobbying effort on behalf of Burnham. On the other hand, it was the top person at the agency – Chairman Robert Klein -- who failed to understand the conflict-of-interest issue and, in fact, advised Reed to do something that violated ethical standards at CIRM.

CIRM's decision to dump the 10 tainted applications clearly damages the young scientists seeking the grants. From the language of CIRM's press release Friday, it is reasonable to infer that nearly all of them were highly rated during the scientific review of their proposals and would have been likely to have been awarded grants this Wednesday. The release said the size of the total package of grants was reduced from $85 million to roughly $60 million as the result of rejecting the 10 grants.

One can only imagine the conversations that the medical school deans have had with the applicants. And one can also imagine them reaching deep into their discretionary funds to ease the pain.

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