Monday, November 16, 2009

Some Question CIRM Grant Oversight as Excessive

The California stem cell agency is receiving “mixed reviews” for its oversight of its research grants, which now total $1 billion, according to an article today in The Scientist magazine.

Commonly governmental agencies are chastised for failing to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent effectively. In this case, the stem cell agency is being faulted -- by some -- for being too tough.

The case in point is the termination -- first reported by the California Stem Cell Report -- of three out of more than 300 grants. The amounts are tiny compared to the $3 billion that CIRM expects to give away, accounting for only $1.8 million in a $46 million round approved in 2007.

The Scientist article by Jef Akst said,
“Clearly, funding agencies need to offer some oversight of grants to avoid misuse of funds. But can there be too much of a good thing? “
She continued,
“There are mixed reviews among the scientific community about whether CIRM's close watch of their grantees is a good thing. To some, it is an important practice for public funding agencies such as CIRM to show the taxpayers that their money is going towards productive and fruitful research. 'I think the oversight is outstanding,' said John Simpson, the stem cell project director at the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog in California. 'It shows that they're not asleep at the switch. CIRM is functioning as both a grant making agency [and] also something of a steward of the funds it hands out.'

“But others say this kind of intense supervision can burden investigators -- and the science itself. 'In theory, it's a terrific thing,' agreed David Kaplan of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, who has written about the peer review system at NIH. "To have the granting agency being involved enough to be helpful to their grantees, I think that is a terrific idea. The problem with that kind of a system is that you can be too intrusive. That eliminates that kind of serendipity [in scientific discovery].'“
Akst wrote that CIRM's “short timeline” may lie behind its grant monitoring, which is more rigorous than performed by the NIH.

She said,
“While the NIH will exist for many years to come, CIRM has a 10-year lifespan, as approved by California voters in 2004. 'CIRM has very defined goals,' said the Burnham Institute for Medical Research's Huei-Sheng Vincent Chen, another SEED grant recipient. '[They] wanted something within 10 years so they have to be more aggressive.'"
The Scientist magazine also chose to publish the names of the scientists whose grants were terminated. Their names are by law public record. Only one of the three scientists spoke with Akst, John Cooke of Stanford.

Akst's story said,
"'I anticipated that they would be happy with that [new] proposal,' Cooke recalled. 'But] they weren't happy.' In January 2009, after a second, more detailed progress report, follow up phone discussions, and a petition for reconsideration from Cooke, CIRM revoked his second year of funding -- nearly half of what he had originally been awarded -- citing the new directions his research had taken.

'I can understand their reasoning,' Cooke said. 'I just wish I had understood that that applied to the SEED grants.'"
Last month, CIRM approved $230 million for 14 grants up to $20 million each that appear to require even more rigorous oversight than earlier rounds. Some CIRM directors said publicly that they expect to see some of the latest grants terminated early because they will fail to meet the required benchmarks.

You can find a list here of all the items published on the California Stem Cell Report concerning the terminated grants. They include comments from the other two scientists, who we have chosen not to identify for previously discussed reasons.


  1. In analyzing decisions to make an initial grant, or to continue it, reviewers are often guided by subjective criteria influenced by their own experience and personal network. In looking at a post below:

    “Reviewers stated that the resources and investigators are outstanding and the team is superb, both scientifically and in therapy development. The Disease Team comprises a collaboration between two complementary groups, one academic and one corporate. Each brings unique expertise to the project, with the academic group providing scientific know-how and proof of concept and the corporate group providing expertise in biologics development and commercialization. The team leaders are accomplished, highly productive investigators with a demonstrated track record in the field of HIV research, gene therapy, and/or clinical drug development. Key members of this team made the initial scientific observations leading to their hypothesis and demonstrated proof of concept in tissue culture and relevant models. A subset of the team has direct experience with a gene therapy trial in humans.”

    I noticed the formulaic, cookie-cutter, tagging of superficially objective favorable points, which likely could be applied to almost all CIRM academic applicants. One wonders how the Wright Brothers, or any "outsider" with step-out ideas, would fare in this regime. The collected wisdom of academics is generally to promote minor variations of the status quo. The Cooke experience suggests that "changing directions" will not be rewarded in the CIRM regime.

    Of course, I'm in New Jersey, where Corzine's attempts to brand his opponent, Governor-elect Christie, as anti-stem cell, didn't resonate. Promises to the public to deliver research results in ten years simply are not credible. Micro-managing research to this end is silly, and, at best, will achieve politically-inflated, but otherwise micro-results.

  2. Larry makes a good point about how scientific orthodoxy is quite powerful, as is orthodoxy in other venues, ranging from politics to religion. What we have in California is a $3 billion program that is not going to be removed or significantly altered because of political and electoral realities. Given that, it seems to make sense to manage the money so that it delivers the biggest bang. Larry, thanks for your comment and analysis of the grant review summary.


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