Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CIRM Ill-served by Withholding Routine Information

With some considerable pride, the California stem cell agency issued a press release earlier this month that it was hosting a San Francisco meeting beginning today of the world's leading agencies involved in financing stem cell research.

It wasn't exactly news. The event and CIRM's role were known to most folks who follow the agency. However, the meeting and how the agency handled requests for information about it demonstrate some of the continuing problems at CIRM with openness and transparency.

Hosting the event seems a legitimate and worthwhile endeavor. As California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein noted in the news release, hosting the International Stem Cell Forum is another demonstration of CIRM's leadership. It also will help facilitate cooperation with activities in California.

However, CIRM has refused to answer one simple and basic question – roughly how much is the hosting going to cost? Keep in mind that CIRM is a state agency. Its financial affairs are all legally public. Keep in mind also that CIRM went out of its way to call attention to its role in the event at the Hotel Monaco, a luxury boutique hotel with rates running from about $250 to $500 a night. The agency should have been prepared to answer routine questions about its news release, such as the cost of a particular activity.

We began making inquiries on Feb. 19. Simple questions: what does "hosting" the event entail, what is the location of the meeting and whether it is open to the public. A spokesperson for CIRM came back quickly the same day with a partial response. She said that hosting includes "paying for the meeting room at the hotel where the meeting is taking place as well as the audio visual set up and possibly some things like copies. We are also paying for 2 dinners (but not alcohol)." After some prompting, the location was disclosed a day later.

But despite additional inquiries, no estimated cost has been forthcoming. One CIRM justification for not supplying a ballpark figure is that it might not be exact. Another is that it takes too much staff time to dig up the estimate.

We assume that CIRM budgets with some care. That means that the estimated cost would be readily available in a matter of minutes from whomever is currently handling CIRM's bookkeeping. The more likely reason for withholding the information is that someone very high in the organization is concerned that the figure might appear too extravagant and generate unfavorable comment.

This is not the first time CIRM has stonewalled on an event cost. One particular case comes to mind – the first scientific meeting that the agency sponsored a couple of years ago.

In both cases, the agency is ill-served by refusing to release routine information about its activities. Ultimately, the cost will come to light. All CIRM achieves at this point is to foster suspicion and speculation about what other, much more important information is being withheld, such as the breaches last year by some of its directors of CIRM's conflict-of-interest policies. Those remained hidden until disclosed here and by the San Francisco Chronicle.

As for our question about whether the meeting is public, the answer is no. That raises a whole host of additional questions about whether public funds should be used for meetings that bar the very persons who finance them.

(Here is a link to the only news story we have seen on the event.)

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