Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tracking CIRM Grants: "Thin Ice" Lurking?

Directors of the California stem cell agency today approved a $15.7 million operating budget for next fiscal year – 28 percent higher than this year's spending – and requested a report from its staff concerning its critical grants management system.

The report was sought after CIRM Director Michael Friedman, CEO of the City of Hope, said he wanted to “express in the strongest possible terms my discomfort” with the decision by CIRM staff to build a custom grants management system.

He said that “unless you are prepared to spend enormous amounts of money, you are stepping on some very thin ice.”
“Everybody has seen horrible examples of custom-designed system that go bad.”
Friedman asked if any subcommittee of directors had approved the decision to go forward with a custom system. The answer was no, but that the decision had been carefully considered by CIRM staff.

At that point in the meeting, we lost the Internet connection to the CIRM audiocast. By the time it was restored , the budget discussion had concluded with approval of the spending plan. Don Gibbons, chief communicastions officer for CIRM, told us by email that the report had been requested. (We will revisit the budget discussion after the agency posts a transcript of the meeting.)

On Monday, when we reported some of the details of the budget, we noted that spending on information technology is scheduled to jump 53 percent from $817,000 to $1.2 million, an increase of about $433,000. Most of that goes for the grant system.

CIRM is trying to oversee more than $1 billion in grants to more than 300 recipients and, at the same time, hand out many hundreds of millions more in the next year or so. It is building custom programs for entire process, from applications to oversight. Currently, CIRM has a $125,000 RFP out for “systems analysis and software development services” and hopes to have a company on board next month.

The board also discussed the strategic financing report(see here and here), which will be wrapped into an external review of CIRM's strategic plan next fall. There appeared to be no clear consensus at this point whether the agency should make grants as speedily as possible or husband its resources to deal with unexpected opportunities in the fast-moving stem cell field. Related to that was a discussion of the CIRM grant portfolio. No action was needed on either item.

Comments by John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., were discussed briefly after they were read into the record. Simpson said he was “troubled” by what appears to be a lack of a level playing field for grant applicants from business and the dominance of academic institutions, who constitute a plurality on  the board.

CIRM Chairman Robert Klein said he did not think that the biotech industry agreed with Simpson's concerns about whether business grant applications were being treated fairly. Klein noted that BIO, a national biotech industry group, recently recognized him with a national award, indicating that the group valued CIRM's contributions. But Klein said more progress was needed.

Vice Chairman Art Torres indicated that he took Simpson's concerns about the seriously but said the public does not understand just how stringent are the conflict of interest standards at the agency.

Directors also approved the a concept proposal for a $45 million round of grants for basic biology research.

You can find slides from the report by CIRM President Alan Trounson here. He discussed recent stem cell research, a proposal for a CIRM online journal and upcoming CIRM workshops. The slides also include those used for the budget presentation.

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