Friday, June 18, 2010

Incident at the Marriott: Stem Cell Agency Bars Public From Meeting

The California stem cell agency barred two academics from entering one of its conferences earlier this week in San Francisco.

The action appears to violate the spirit and probably the letter of the California State Constitution and state open meeting laws. Under section three of the constitution, approved by 83 percent of voters in 2004, members of the public have a broadly construed right of access to what their government is doing. That includes meetings at San Francisco hotels.

The incident involves Tina Stevens of San Francisco State University and and Diane Beeson of California State University, Hayward. Stevens is executive director of the Alliance for Humane Biotech. Beeson is on the board of directors – none of which has to do with whether they should have access. The law entitles the lowliest worker an equal right to government access.

Here is the account that Stevens and Beeson sent to the California Stem Cell Report.
“On Monday, June 14 we went to San Francisco's Sutter Street Marriot Hotel to attend the CIRM - Medical Research Council Human SCNT Workshop. Both academics with long-standing interests in women's health and research policy, we were heading for the session on, 'Procurement of Human Oocytes: What has been the Experience to Date?' Despite the fact that there was no public notice of an upcoming workshop on a topic of sustained interest to women's health advocacy groups, we heard about it via the grapevine and decided to attend. But upon arrival, we were barred at the door. The session on egg procurement had been switched to an earlier morning time slot and already had taken place, we were told. Our printed agenda was outdated. Further, we would not be granted entrance to the meeting underway. Why? It was closed to the public because conferees maintain concerns over protecting their intellectual property. Questions remain. What intellectual property concerns could there be over oocyte procurement policy? Why was the agenda switched up? Why wasn't a workshop concerning egg donation posted on the CIRM website in the first place when the topic is known to be of serious concern to the public, especially to women's health advocates?

“Outside the conference room, hotel staff bustled over luncheon preparations: plump rolls, dome-covered serving dishes and stacks of shiny crockery near folded cloth napkins, multiple gleaming beverage urns. California can't muster tax dollars to fund classes for students at public universities but has managed to finance posh buffets for scientists who've prioritized safeguarding their intellectual property over the public's right to know.”
We sent a copy of their account to Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM. Here is his response:
“All of CIRM's scientific workshops are by invitation only. These workshops are designed to gather information for critical decisions regarding the direction our funding should take. In order to get the latest, most up-to-date information, we have to assure scientists that their proprietary and unpublished information will not be made public. The workshop this week was not on egg donation, it was on nuclear transfer research and whether or not CIRM should continue to consider funding projects in that field or whether other technologies had made the pursuit of this difficult science no longer necessary. As always, we will be publishing a report from the workshop on our web site.

“The women who wrote to you were not told to leave, they were asked to wait until the staff member managing the event could get one of the senior staff to talk to them. They were asked for their names or IDs so she could inform us of who was making the request and they refused to provide any names or identification.

“Our lunch was simple chicken, tofu with carrots and plain steamed rice. We were offered coffee, tea and water. Hardly posh. When you are asking folks to work for you for free and take a very short lunch break it seems reasonable.”
Our take: We have written more than once concerning problems with CIRM's lack of openness. We have commented on the rampant conflict of interest issues at the agency and its lack of accountability, along with its move towards increasing closeness to the biotech industry. All of which go to CIRM's credibility and the public's trust in the agency. This lastest incident appears to be another case that does not reflect well on CIRM.

CIRM says the meeting was aimed at securing “information for critical decisions” about how it is going to spend taxpayers' money. That subject would certainly seem to be a matter of considerable public interest and justify a public need to know. As for asking for identification, that appears to be a clear violation of state law. The state attorney general's guide to California's open meeting law says agencies covered by the act are barred from imposing “ANY CONDITIONS” on attendance at a meeting.

As for the need to protect intellectual property, proprietary or unpublished information, that claim is simply poppycock. CIRM has not disclosed how many persons were in the closed-door meeting, but it is impossible to keep information secret when even more than a handful of persons is present, and most likely not even then.

Prop. 71, approved by 59 percent of voters in 2004, exempted CIRM from some aspects of the state's sunshine laws. It is not clear whether those exemptions apply in this case. But the state Constitution (section three) was also changed by voters in 2004 to guarantee the right of the public to access. That change was approved by a much larger vote (89 percent) than Prop. 71. It is our understanding that if conflicts exist in such cases, the measure with the larger vote takes precedence.

Legalities aside, it is not in CIRM's best interest to bar persons from any of its sessions – not to mention that it is not in the best interests of the people of California. CIRM needs to do more than meet the minimum standards of the state's sunshine laws. To fail to do so will create a record that will surely harm CIRM's public support and hamper its efforts to secure more funding after it runs out of the $2 billion it has left to spend.


  1. Anonymous6:59 AM

    What would be the best strategy to wake voters so they understand what is going on here? I don't think many people connect the dots on what is involved in egg donation, the expansion of this new commercial market for eggs let alone the risks to young women.

  2. I suspect voters cannot be aroused on this or other related issues unless a crisis occurs. If you want stiffer regulation or laws on the matter, that is a different campaign. One that targets key decision makers in Sacramento. And you will have to be prepared to deal with the economic heft that the egg industry can muster.

  3. Justine Durrell4:49 PM

    From your extended and thorough tracking of the workings of CIRM, do you believe it moving further away from transparency? It seems the public has lost some interest given all the other problems facing Californians and perhaps this allows the agency to move with less oversight. Short of a crisis, and of course, your blog, do you have thoughts on how the lack of openness might best be addressed?

  4. Justine -- The first and easiest step towards openness would be for CIRM to post in timely fashion background information explaining the often cryptic items on their meeting agendas. Ideally the material would go up when the agenda is posted 10 calendar days ahead of the meeting. The agency has consistently failed to do this over the last two or three years. As we have noted more than once, it is impossible for the public, the biotech industry, researchers or other interested parties to comment intelligently on proposed actions without knowing what is being proposed. Other actions are necessary but this first step is the easiest and is clearly in CIRM's own best interests and the interest of its directors. What do you think?

  5. Justine Durrell8:21 AM

    I think this a good first step. Do you have an open channel with a member, or members, of CIRM with whom you could communicate this need? If not, who would be the appropriate person, or persons, to whom to speak about this. I think it essential the public have access to the agenda, well in advance, at an obvious and accessible location, access to the meetings and the ability to provide comments, which hopefully are seriously considered.

  6. Persons concerned about public access to meetings of the $3 billion California stem cell agency can write its board of directors. Send your remarks to and ask that they be forwarded to board members. You can send a copy to djensen@californiastemcellreport.comif you wish.


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