Thursday, May 08, 2008

CIRM Conflicts: Comments from the Cerberus

The California stem cell agency is bit of a strange beast politically and governmentally speaking. It was deliberately created that way by those who drafted Prop. 71, which established the agency in 2004.

While the trend in government in the past few decades has been towards minimizing conflicts of interest, the voter-approved initiative installed them in spades when it created CIRM's 29-member board of directors. And there is virtually nothing that the ordinary branches of government, such as the governor or the legislature, can do about it. To alter the law concerning CIRM requires a state constitutional amendment or a nearly equally unattainable super, super-majority vote of the legislature –70 percent.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog, commented on the conflicts today in his blog after attending two days of meetings of the directors earlier this week. Here is part of what he wrote:
"Only seven members (out of the 29 positions) could vote on the overall grant awards Wednesday -- all the rest had to recuse themselves. They couldn't even talk about the proposals. Besides the members of the board who hold their seats by virtue of their academic roles, several patient advocate members were conflicted because they work for academic institutions that had requests pending. One member is a UC regent."
One of the justifications for placing persons with conflicts on the board was to tap their knowledge and expertise. Obviously, that did not occur earlier this week. Instead they were gagged by state law.

The conflicts and recusals also meant that it would only take a majority of four to hand out $271 million in taxpayer funds. No vote tally was announced by CIRM in its press release, but it is fair to assume that all seven voted in favor of the grants, a foregone conclusion since last December.

CIRM's board of directors have only overturned the positive decisions of its grant reviewers on one occasion and never on their negative decisions, which raises other good government issues. Discussion of that will have to wait for another day.

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