Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Perils of Group-Think at CIRM

Is the California stem cell agency dominated by an Old Boys Club that is shy on experience in running a grant program totalling a half-billion dollars?

John M. Simpson
, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., thinks so.

Simpson, who describes himself as a "fat, old white guy," says he doesn't have anything against such persons. But he warns about the perils of group-think when the top execs are cut from the same general mold.

Only one woman and no minorities hold top management positions at CIRM, which Simpson lists as chairman, vice chairman, president, vice president, chief scientific officer and chief communications officer.

Writing on his organization's blog, Simpson sees the hiring of John A. Robson of McGill as part of the influence of CIRM's old boys. Simpson cites the role of Richard Murphy, former CIRM director, former interim president and ongoing consultant, in recruiting Robson. Murphy also once worked at McGill.

Simpson also notes that former CIRM acting president Lori Hoffman had a falling out with Chairman Robert Klein last year and was "pushed out."

Simpson writes that with Zach Hall as president and Arlene Chiu as chief scientific officer, CIRM "had extensive experience on the grant-making and management side of the equation by virtue of their time at the National Institutes of Health. They knew something about holding grantees accountable."

Simpson continues,
"The Old Boys Club members' experience has been on the grant-receiving side -- and most of that in academia.  Certainly some of the top executives at an agency charged with handing out $3 billion in scientific grants should have experience on the grant-making side. It's almost as if the henhouse is being taken over by the foxes."
Simpson concludes:
"I fear the Old Boys Club is letting visions of playing on the international stage distract them from what is really CIRM's charge: Funding vital research and finding cures in California.  The real danger of a having a management team that looks alike is that team members will think alike. Nobody will stand up and say, 'Wait a minute; just what are we doing here and why?'"

1 comment:

  1. Although it is admirable that Mr. Simpson is concerned with the distinction between grant making (distributing the money of others) and grant receiving (using the money of others), the greater concern should be with "what is going to be done."

    Going to a theme of aircraft, circa World War I (of some interest to Simpson), one recalls that Langley got $50,000 from the US government and the Wrights spent about $1000 of their own money. The Wrights' plane flew and Langley's did not. Nevertheless, the "good old boys" of that time created the "Langley Prize" and bestowed it on the Wrights. The benefit to society was a plane that flew, rather than the chattering of academics.

    Separately, if one looks to the newspapers of that time, one can find the same arguments NOW used by Simpson against the patents of WARF were THEN used by Curtiss (invoking Langley) against the Wrights' patent. There is nothing new about what Simpson is saying in 2008. One does note that in the duration of time that CIRM has been around, the Wrights did their experiments and flew.

    Of state public financing of scientific research on stem cells, the people of California said yes and the people of New Jersey said no. As ordinary people worry about their mortgages, getting to work, and simply getting food, one wonders how those votes would come out in mid-2008.


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