Sunday, July 06, 2008

CIRM's Grant Review Process: Complaints About Errors and Appeals

California's stem cell agency has pumped out more than $554 million in awards for stem cell research, but this year grumbling has emerged about its secretive awards process, which officially does not permit rebuttal in the case of errors and allows appeals only in the case of conflicts of interest.

On Sunday, reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune became the first mainstream media writer to examine the issue in some detail.

Somers used June's meeting of the CIRM board of directors to discuss the subject, including additional interviews with researchers.

Somers wrote that CIRM is

"...basing its funding decisions on recommendations from panels of scientists who sometimes make significant factual errors in their reviews of grant requests, some applicants say.

"Yet there is no way for applicants to point out or rebut the errors – at least not through a formal appeals process, such as the one used by the National Institutes of Health.

"'I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to get turned down for a grant and have no recourse other than to shred it and all the time you spent doing it,' said Jeanne Loring(see photo), a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

Somers said CIRM has no plans to change its policies concerning appeals or error. She quoted CIRM Chairman Robert Klein as saying the NIH appeal process is too slow for CIRM. He said an NIH appeal can take as long as two years.

Somers did not raise the closed-door nature of the grant reviews as an issue, but applicants do not have access to the proceedings. Nor do apparently many of them know that they can appear publicly before CIRM directors and ask them to change the recommendations of scientific reviewers or even write a letter to that effect.

Directors have final authority on grant approval but generally ratify decisions of the scientific reviewers, without even officially knowing the identities of the research applicants. Their identities are withheld but in many cases can be discerned through the public summary of reviewers' comments.

Somers quoted one CIRM director, Jeff Sheehy of the University of California, San Francisco, about the review process. Sheehy is also a patient advocate member of the CIRM grant review group and played a role last month in airing concerns by one scientist, Fred Gage of the Salk Institute.

Sheehy told Somers:

"We may have missed some good science, but I don't think we have funded (bad science)."

While CIRM does not plan changes in its review process, Klein did tell Somers about one option for disgruntled applicants. She wrote:

"If a scientist wants to rebut an error of fact of great scientific importance, he or she should point it out to institute President Alan Trounson or Chief Scientific Officer Marie Csete, Klein said.

"Those scientists could then sort out the issue with the reviewers and decide whether it needs to be brought to the board's attention, he said."

Our take: If that is CIRM policy, all applicants should be informed about that possibility as they apply. Fairness and the appearance of fairness are critical to CIRM's credibility.

Here is a link to a detailed critique by one applicant and our report from the June meeting of CIRM directors.

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