Thursday, April 22, 2010

CIRM Directors to Hand Out $30 Million and Wrestle with Contracting Policies

Directors of the California stem cell agency meet next Wednesday and Thursday in the Los Angeles area to give away more than $30 million and to make undisclosed changes in its policies for outside contracting, which now run roughly $3 million annually.

CIRM, which is limited by law to only 50 employees, is heavily dependent on outside contractors for everything from public relations to legal advice to federal lobbying. Outside contracts are the second largest item in CIRM's operational budget, behind only its salaries and benefits.

The outside work includes such sensitive matters as computer systems and programs involving proprietary information from grant applicants and recipients and oversight of their performance.

The agenda for next week's meeting contains no information on exactly what contracting changes are being proposed. That is in keeping with CIRM's de facto policy of withholding such details from the public until it is too late for interested parties to comment in a timely fashion. With only three business days remaining before the meeting, CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has released only six words on the proposed changes: “consideration of amendments to contract policy.”

In a related matter, the board will consider the agency's contract with Remcho, Johansen and Purcell of San Leandro, which has served as its primary legal adviser since 2005. Currently it has a two-year, $1 million contract that is scheduled to expire at the end of June. CIRM also withheld information on the Remcho agenda item.

As far as grants go, the board is scheduled to hand out a budgeted $30 million for “basic biology” research and another undisclosed amount for CIRM “research leadership awards.” The latter program is new and is budgeted for $44 million over two years with grants as high as $4.5 million each. The purpose of the program is to assist institutions in luring “paradigm-shifting” scientists to California.

The basic biology round is aimed at both business and nonprofit applicants, including proposals with Japanese collaborators.

Here is a link to scores on all the biology grants to be considered next week along with summaries of reviewer comments, although the directors' agenda does not provide a link to the information. (Review summaries could not be found on the CIRM Web site for the researcher recruitment grants.)

Reviewers approved 14 biology grants, including a $1.4 million application with a score of 66. That grant was slotted for approval despite having a lower score than two other grants that scored ahead of it with 71 and 69.

The directors have final legal authority on approval but almost never overturn a favorable decision by scientific reviewers, who operate behind closed doors and do not have to disclose publicly their economic and professional interests.

Concerning the grant with the 66 score, the CIRM review summary said,
“The reviewers acknowledged that the PI is a strong leader in his/her field with an outstanding publication record in high impact journals. They did note, however, a limited experience with hESC or iPSC. While they appreciated the complementary expertise of the collaborators, the reviewers were puzzled by what they perceived to be a lack of engagement with the local community of stem cell scientists at the applicant's institution. The research environment and facilities were considered excellent.”
Under the “programmatic review” section of the summary, CIRM indicated the rationale for approval. CIRM said,
“A reviewer reasoned that this proposal fills a programmatic need in the area of hematopoiesis for CIRM. Though the application was judged risky, the proposal was felt to represent a scientific direction with great potential. The review panel discerned that the benefits of studying RUNX1 in humans warranted the risks and outweighed the concerns over feasibility.”
One scientific reviewer did not participate in the decision because of a publicly undisclosed conflict of interest. He is Ali Brivanlou of the Rockefeller University. The grant review group includes members of the CIRM board who also may vote during the group's review process.

Significantly not on the agenda is an item dealing with compensation for a new vice president of research and development, whom the agency has been seeking since last summer. The matter has been on the table for several past meetings. The absence this time could mean that no further discussion of the matter is required since a person has been hired. If so, look for an announcement next week.

CIRM directors are also expected to seek to stifle the latest legislative attempts to reform CIRM operations, improve its transparency and ensure affordable access to taxpayer-financed therapies. Their strategy is to have the measure, SB1064, sent to interim study, which would shunt the effort aside for a year or so.

The board meeting will be available via the Internet(audio only). The Wednesday meeting will take place in Monrovia at the Doubletree Hotel and Thursday at the City of Hope in Duarte. Instructions for logging into the audiocast can be found on the agenda. If you want to follow the discussion, you may want to have a copy of the agenda and any background material handy for reference.

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