Monday, September 27, 2010

Credibility Damaged and Foes Aided: No Upside on CIRM's Ban on the Public

The California stem cell agency's ban on the public during the most sweeping review ever of its operations promises little upside for the $3 billion enterprise and plenty of downside.

That's not to mention the fact that the ban is poor policy and is not likely to achieve its stated purpose – candor from those testifying before the blue-ribbon, international panel that has scheduled three days of hearings in San Francisco beginning Oct. 13.

The “external” review, as CIRM has labelled it, is called for by the agency's strategic plan of 2006. That document recognized the need to revise the plan as conditions changed. It was prepared with substantial comments from the public and a number of open hearings,

CIRM has devoted about 2,000 hours of staff time preparing for the the latest review, which will be critical in determing how the agency will spend its remaining $2 billion. The eight-member panel, which includes a Nobel laureate, is expected to prepare a report that will be considered by the CIRM board in December.

The strategic review comes as CIRM Chairman Robert Klein is publicly discussing presenting to voters a $5 billion bond measure to continue CIRM's activities. A bond measure is necessary because the agency's only real source of funding is cash that the state borrows (bonds). Klein's new bond proposal places the agency's efforts squarely in the context of a political campaign, which could come as early as two years from now.

Last week CIRM told the California Stem Cell Report that members of the public would be barred from attending the agency's external review. CIRM also has made no public effort to solicit comment from California citizenry, which is paying $6 billion, including interest, for the research program. Nor has CIRM notified the public via its Web site that an important evaluation of CIRM will take place.

Don Gibbons, spokesman for CIRM, said the closed-door sessions were necessary so that “reviewers can ask tough questions and receive candid, unfiltered responses” from CIRM staff, biotech executives and some CIRM board members who are scheduled to appear before the review panel.

The reality, however, is much different. CIRM staffers who want to keep their jobs are not going to say anything to reviewers that they haven't already told their superiors. Biotech executives who want to receive grants or loans from CIRM are unlikely to be sharply critical of the agency. And CIRM board members are more than likely to be circumspect, given that they have to make the final judgment on whatever the panel comes up with.

Only a “small number” of the 29 board members have been invited to make comments to the panel. Their identities and topics are yet to be disclosed.

The closed-door proceedings pose a problem for any CIRM board members who might want to sit in on a session or two. Essentially, they must ask permission of the CIRM staff to attend. That's because if too many of them attend, they could run afoul of the state's open meeting law by either constituting a quorum or creating what is known as a “serial meeting.”

Board members have sometimes complained about having to act with too little information. The primary example is appeals on grant applications. The board has repeatedly been asked to overturn negative decisions by grant reviewers, but cannot actually examine the actual applications. In January 2009, the board was caught by surprise when its bond funding was endangered. That particular problem was in evidence to knowledgeable persons well prior to that meeting and could have been disclosed to the board earlier. Limiting directors' attendance at the external review distances the board even more from key aspects of CIRM operations.

Last week we polled CIRM directors about whether they thought that the external review should be open. While we can't say our email reached all directors, we believe most saw it. Four responded. Only one director, Jeff Sheehy, said yes. Others may feel likewise while some are opposed, but at the same time feel constrained about responding via our query.

Director Floyd Bloom, former editor of Science magazine, said he did not see a need for the public to able to attend the review, He said the panel's report will be considered later by CIRM directors, and the public could comment then. (You can read all of the results here of the query including comments from some directors.)

CIRM has yet to provide a legal justification for closing the review. However, little doubt exists that the agency believes the ban on the public is lawful. Presumably CIRM would make a similar argument to one presented last July in connection with another CIRM meeting that barred the public.

However, those arguments fail to take into account a major change in the state Constitution in 2004 that guaranteed the public a broadly construed right to access to governmental affairs. The state's open meeting laws were written before that change and have not yet been amended to reflect its broader constitutional access provisions.

From a political and good government perspective, the ban on the public, coupled with continuing complaints about a lack of transparency at CIRM, unnecessarily provide major ammunition to its foes along with the foes of hESC research across the nation. Closed-door proceedings breed suspicion, even on the part of a public inclined to support stem cell research. They provide a fertile ground for the worst sort of rumors and add evidence that CIRM is an “insiders club,” as others, including Nature magazine, have complained. No doubt exists that Klein's $5 billion bond measure campaign will have to confront severe criticism about the lack of openness at CIRM.

One reader of this report, who is knowledgeable about CIRM affairs but who must remain anonymous, told us,
“The failure to provide any opportunity for public input in the process diminishes its credibility and utility. This is a hand-picked body following a pre-determined agenda that was defined  by CIRM. CIRM (i.e. Klein) decides what's presented and what's considered. The outcome is predictable.”
CIRM carries a special burden in connection with openness and transparency because of its unprecedented nature. As opposed to other state departments, it is not subject to normal oversight by the governor and the legislature. Funds flow to it unaffected by the financial crisis that is damaging public education and medical assistance to the poor in California.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been advocate of more openness throughout state government and also a strong supporter of CIRM's operations. He has opened up other state departments' activities, including executives expense accounts, to public scrutiny. He said some time ago,
“Transparency is fundamental to promoting efficiency and effectiveness in government and strengthening the democratic process by giving citizens enough information to reach their own conclusions about how their tax dollars are being spent.”
CIRM should reconsider its position and open the external review to the persons who are actually financing its operations.

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