Tuesday, January 27, 2009

CIRM Staff Nixes Appeal Efforts from Two Scientists

The staff of the California stem cell agency has rejected two attempts to overturn negative decisions on two grant applications for a total of $2.8 million, one from the Bay Area and one from Southern California.

Following a relatively new procedure, CIRM President Alan Trounson said that the applicants failed to present "compelling evidence" for a change. Trounson referred to petitions by Susan Fisher(see color photo), a professor at UC San Francisco, who sought $904,172 , and Prue Talbot(see black and white photo), a professor at UC Riverside, who sought $1.9 million.

Both women disputed the decisions of the CIRM Grants Working Group on their applications, which were considered and voted on earlier behind closed doors. Later this week, CIRM directors could overturn the actions by reviewers. However, in December, in the only other instance of the use of the new petition procedure, the board stood by the decisions of reviewers after the CIRM staff could find no compelling evidence for a reversal.

Here is what Trounson had to say on Fisher's petition:
"We agree that reviewers considered this a meritorious application. The proposal to create an 'antibody tool kit for human embryonic stem cells and their progeny' was highly regarded but not unique. To clarify, there is at least one other application in Tier 2 that proposes the development of an antibody tool kit.

"In regard to the reviewer criticisms, we believe that reviewers were justified in raising concern about the PI’s overall commitments as the application lists 15 currently active projects that consume 87% of the PI’s effort. In addition, the PI lists 3 pending projects that would consume 40% effort. Regardless of additional personnel that can help lead the project, the PI is ultimately responsible for managing and ensuring that the project is carried out as proposed. We disagree that the only way to increase the percent effort of a given individual is to remove another individual from the project. The CIRM Grants Administration Policy limits the annual salary requests for each key person to $207,000. It does not, however, limit the percent effort that an investigator can commit to a project. In fact, a key person may contribute any effort between 1 and 100 percent without requesting any salary support from the CIRM grant. Therefore, the budget cap alone should not prevent an investigator from contributing greater effort when appropriate. We recognize that effort contributed to a project should be appropriately compensated, but the CIRM grant should not necessarily be viewed as the sole source of support."
Here is what Trounson said concerning Talbot's petition:
"We appreciate the arguments presented by Dr. Talbot on strengths of this proposal. Reviewers agreed that the institution’s designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution provides an important opportunity for the recruitment and training of underrepresented minorities and this point was highlighted and accounted for in the score and final recommendation. However, this important strength was balanced by the reviewers’ assessment of the overall quality and design of the training program. When compared to other competing proposals, this application did not convince reviewers that the training opportunities would provide sufficient depth and breath to trainees. It is also important to note that the existing training of students in stem cell biology referenced in the letter was not articulated in the application despite the opportunity to do so.

"The applicant’s letter also indicates that their application for the Training Grant Program in 2005 received a higher score and recommendation than for this review. We believe that there are many factors that might contribute to this difference including among others a general strengthening of competing programs in the last 3 years, a different composition of reviewers, and a different (although similar) proposal from the applicant. Reviewers based their recommendation on the proposal that was presented to them for the current competition and not the previous."
The links to Trounson's comments also contain the petitions filed by the two scientists and the public summary of their grant reviews.

(A footnote: Fisher is featured in a video on the CIRM home page and CIRMTV dealing with Obama's inauguration.)

(An earlier version of this item did not contain the amount requested by Talbot and the total for both grants.)

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