Thursday, May 01, 2008

Sunshine and $66 Million in Stem Cell Training Grants

The California stem cell agency is proposing a new, $66 million round of training grants that will reach into the undergraduate level as well as honing the skills of more advanced students and scientists.

The proposals also offer an fine opportunity for CIRM to break out of its usual, closed-door grant review procedures and open the process to overdue public scrutiny.

The training plans will come up next week for conceptual approval at CIRM's Oversight Committee meeting. The proposals include a three-year, $48 million offering aimed at pre-doctoral, postdoctoral and clinical fellow levels. The second, $18 million training plan targets lower academic levels and could involve as many as 100 students over a possible three-year period.

The latest proposals are a continuation of an effort begun in September 2005, when CIRM approved its first-ever grants, $39 million for training 170 scientists over three years. Those grants were reviewed behind closed doors by scientists whose financial interests are not publicly disclosed, an arrangement that has persisted to this day.

Closed door reviews are a long-standing custom in the scientific community. Changing that process is uncomfortable for many. CIRM has argued that the private process is necessary to encourage candid comments from reviewers and to avoid embarrassing rejected applicants. Unspoken is the possibility that disappointed applicants might later vent their displeasure on the CIRM grant reviewers, perhaps by acting negatively on the reviewers' own grant applications before the NIH or other institutions or taking some other professional retaliatory action.

Applications for the CIRM training grants, however, will come from institutions – not individuals. It is very difficult – although probably not impossible – to embarrass, for example, UC Berkeley, especially during a review of an application for a training program.

Some have argued that CIRM should not diverge from NIH closed-door review practices. However, CIRM and the NIH are much different animals. The NIH is subject to control by the president and Congress. CIRM is all but immune from fiddling by the governor and the legislature because it is enshrined in the state Constitution and given special protection under the terms of Prop. 71.

CIRM officials have said that the agency's review process does not need to be changed because no problems have come up. However, an ounce of prevention can help to avoid unexpected scandal. No one last year would have predicted the mess that resulted when one CIRM director intervened with CIRM staff in an attempt to secure a grant to his institution. No one would have predicted that the director's action would come as the result of advice from the chairman of CIRM, who is an attorney intimately familiar with CIRM law and rules.

While its scientific reviews are closed, the stem cell agency has conducted public hearings on the construction phase of applications for $262 million to build stem cell labs. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog, participated in those open sessions.

In response to a query, he said they worked out well. He added,
"The Facilities Working Group review of applications for funding laboratories was public and everyone benefited. The scientific review was secret, implying that it's perfectly OK to embarrass an institution because it can't build a building, but that it's wrong to suggest publicly it can't do decent science.

"It's time to open the closed scientific brotherhood to scrutiny and conduct the scientific reviews of the training programs in public. What do scientists have to hide?"
Earlier this week, Nature magazine warned of "cronyism" at CIRM and called for "strong governance" of the stem cell agency. However, the political realities in California are such that the built-in conflicts of interest on the Oversight Committee are not going to disappear any time soon.

Letting a little sunshine in on this round of training grants would be salutary for CIRM and well serve both its own interests and the interests of the people of California.

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