Friday, February 15, 2008

Stem Cell Mischief and 'Research Sites'

For the first time in the brief life of the California stem cell agency, businesses based throughout the United States or elsewhere have had a chance to bid for some of the $3 billion in research funds being given out by the Golden State.

There is one catch. The firms must have established a "research site" in California by Feb. 5 of this year, which was the deadline for applications in the $25 million new cell lines program. If applicants did not have a site already in California, they had only about two months to set up one after the request for applications went out in late November.

reports that 12 businesses have applied, but provides little other information. Nor is the agency checking any time soon to see whether the business applicants, in fact, have "research sites" in California. That will come months from now, after CIRM directors approve the grants, which is scheduled for June. Following approval the CIRM staff will begin an administrative review, which in the past has taken additional months.

Perhaps we are overly suspicious, but given the tight timetable for creating a "research site," it seems that now is the time to check on the existence of these sites. Attempting to do so six months from now is problematic at best and is certainly not a good example of what might be called "due diligence." If there is a difference of opinion next summer between CIRM and an applicant about the existence of the site in February, the evidence trail could be cold and murky.

CIRM cannot tell us whether any firms headquartered outside of California have applied. Ellen Rose, a spokeswoman for CIRM, said the application does not ask for that information.

The application forms, in fact, do not even ask for a specific street address of the "research site," a term which is undefined in the CIRM documents we examined. The application asks only for the institutional mailing address of the organization for purposes of receiving the grant.

Rose said,
"Confirmation of applicant research sites in California is not something we do before accepting the application for review. This is a long technical process, which we will embark on only if the grants are recommended for funding during further administrative review."
She also said,
"The burden is always on the applicant to demonstrate eligibility. If a company can't demonstrate evidence of a California site on Feb. 5, then it is not eligible - this was the same for applicants that were new (either new to California or just new) non-profits, that have applied for grants going back to the first SEED and comprehensive grants."
Perhaps all the business applications come from well-established California firms. (The public cannot know because their names are deemed to be secret by CIRM decree.)

But it would seem to be in CIRM's own best interests to scan the applications within the next few days to sniff out any likely attempts at deception. If mischief is afoot, detecting it six months from now could be an ugly and unproductive business.

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