Friday, January 29, 2010

Big Buck Stem Cell Plans Shrouded by CIRM Transparency Failure

With only three business days remaining before directors of the California stem cell agency act on proposals that appear to involve hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, CIRM is keeping researchers, biotech firms and the public in the dark about the details and rationale behind the plans.

Ironically, the failure in openness comes only shortly after a key state financial oversight committee unanimously urged CIRM to be more transparent and accountable.

CIRM's lack of transparency concerning its directors meetings is a perennial problem for the $3 billion organization. It also flies in the face of rhetoric from CIRM chairman, Robert Klein, who repeatedly avows that CIRM adheres to the highest standards of openness and transparency.

While the organization posts a bare bones notice well in advance of directors meetings, the agendas consist of little more than cryptic phrases that provide little information about the proposals or their justification. (See here, here and here and here for a related transparency issue.) Sometimes some of the needed information is posted on the CIRM Web site a day or two before a meeting. But sometimes the needed material is never posted at all in advance of a meeting. Even CIRM board members have grumbled at times about the tardiness.

CIRM's secrecy runs counter to its efforts to involve the public, researchers and the biotech industry. Business particularly needs time to analyze proposals, develop a well-thought out response and make plans to attend CIRM board meetings, which are scattered around the state. It is not realistic or reasonable to expect biotech executives to drop all their activities to respond to CIRM on a one-day or two-day notice or less, either to attend a board meeting or formulate a written comment to be delivered to CIRM.

On Tuesday, the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee unanimously urged CIRM to beef up its transparency and openness. The committee is no outside group, but something of a sibling to CIRM. The committee was created by Prop. 71, the same measure that created the stem cell agency, and generally has been friendly to the organization. (CIRM has not yet responded to a request for comment on the committee's action.)

In December, directors created a subcommittee to improve communications with the public and the media. The action implicitly recognized that CIRM needs to do a better job of selling itself to the public and decision makers in Sacramento if it is to receive continued funding after its $3 billion runs out ($1 billion is already committed). Ironically details and justification for the stepped-up communications effort were not posted on the CIRM Web site until the day of the CIRM board meeting.

To CIRM's credit, it does provide significant access to some aspects of its business. Among other things, it broadcasts its directors meetings on the Internet and provides transcripts online a couple of weeks after the meetings. But those are after the fact. The public must be informed ahead of action in order to comment intelligently.

That also should include a notification on the CIRM home page of an upcoming directors meeting with some clue to the issues being considered – something that has not happened for a year or more. The directors' meetings are the most important public actions at CIRM. They deserve to be highlighted by the agency.

The issues involving CIRM's transparency and openness go beyond good management and speak directly to the California's constitutional guarantee of a “broadly construed” right of public access to “the people's business.” But importantly for CIRM, improved openness would not only enhance its communications with the public, but would also improve relations with its scientific and business constituents – not to mention legislators.

CIRM can do better, and California taxpayers deserve more.

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