Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stem Cell Agency Bans Public from Critical Review of its Operations

The California stem cell agency said yesterday it will bar the public from three days of the most sweeping hearings ever into how well it is spending $3 billion in taxpayer funds.

The blue-ribbon assessment of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will be the first such in the agency's five-year history and will be critical in determining how CIRM will spend its remaining $2 billion. The sessions also represent the most exhaustive review of the agency's past performance. CIRM has already committed more than $1 billion to 364 scientists and institutions.

Although CIRM directors have been told that the review will occur, the public has not been notified via CIRM's Web site or other means that the Oct.13-15 assessment will take place. Nor has the agency publicly solicited from citizens or other interested parties comments or suggestions of issues to be addressed.

CIRM has repeatedly come under fire from state officials for its lack of transparency. An influential state lawmaker said last February that the agency is “essentially accountable to no one.” The ban on the public at the October review also appears to fly in the face of a state constitutional amendment adopted in 2004. By an overwhelming 83 percent, voters altered the constitution to guarantee the public a broadly construed right of access to what state government is doing.

John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., a longtime observer of CIRM, said that conducting the "entire process behind closed doors shows an agency with leaders who are completely unaware of their responsibility to the public, or worse, don't care." (The full text of his remarks can be found here.)

Responding to a query, Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for the agency, told the California Stem Cell Report that the closed-door sessions are justified so that “reviewers can ask tough questions and receive candid, unfiltered responses” from CIRM staff and board members, among others.

Gibbons said in an email,
“The reviewers are not public officials and have no governmental authority; they were asked to serve by staff not the CIRM board. They have been asked to give their opinion, not make decisions.”
He said that the reviewers will produce a written report during their closed-door sessions that will be reviewed by the CIRM board of directors in a public meeting. (All of Gibbons' remarks can be read here.)

The “external review,” as it is known, is called for by the agency's strategic plan. CIRM President Alan Trounson told directors in August that preparation for the meetings at CIRM headquarters in San Francisco is taking 2,000 hours of staff time.

The sessions will be conducted beginning Oct. 13 by an eight-member panel. The members are Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise of New York, NY; George Daley of Harvard and director of stem cell transplantation at the Children's Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute; Sir Martin Evans, Nobel Laureate and director of the School of Biosciences of Cardiff University of Great Britain; Judy Illes, director of the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia; Richard Insel, executive vice president of Research for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of New York, NY; Richard Klausner, formerly the global health executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Health program and now an independent consultant, Myrtle Potter, now head of her own consulting firm and former president of Genentech, Inc., and Nancy Wexler, Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University and president of the Hereditary Disease Foundation. (Full biographies can be found here.)

Two of the panelists have links to CIRM. Daley is a scientific co-founder and co-chair of the scientific advisory board of iPierian, Inc., of South San Francisco, which holds a $1.5 million grant from the agency. Ipierian is expected to apply for an award in CIRM's upcoming, $50 million clinical trials round. Daley is also an ad hoc member of the CIRM grant review committee and serves on a national consortium created by CIRM.

Potter served for six years on a panel that is charged with overseeing CIRM's financial operations, the Citizen's Financial Accountability Oversight Committee.

Insel's organization has longstanding ties with CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who currently serves on the foundation's board of chancellors.

Consumer Watchdog's Simpson said,
"This evaluation looks to be conducted by insiders, some with clear conflicting ties to CIRM. That is highly improper and inappropriate."
In response to a query, Gibbons outlined the order of business for the review. He said,
“The first day will be presentations by staff about various aspects of our operations and goals, with ample time for discussion during each session.
“The second morning will be presentations by the Chair (Klein) and his staff about governance and bonds, with the afternoon being given over to a series of discussions with small groups: members of the Grants Working Group, biotech execs, CIRM grantees, and patient advocates.
“The third day will begin with a Q&A session with Alan (Trounson) and then the reviewers will begin to outline the draft of their report with only a facilitator present.”
Later, Gibbons added,
“A small group of board members will be interviewed by the group the second afternoon.”
The California stem cell agency has drawn strong criticism for its lack of openness. Last February, state Sen. Elaine Kontaminas Alquist, D-San Jose, chair of the Senate Health Committee, said CIRM is “essentially accountable to no one.” In January, the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, chaired by the state's top fiscal office, Controller John Chiang, unanimously recommended more transparency at CIRM. Commenting on the committee's action to CIRM directors last February, Trounson said it was an "irrational attack on the governance of the institute without any real information backing it up."

The Little Hoover Commission, the state's good government oversight group, last year prepared an 88-page report on CIRM. The commission's recommendations included improved transparency, noting that it would help to ease criticism that CIRM amounts to an “insider's club.”

CIRM is not subject to normal state oversight, including that of the governor and the legislature. Under the terms of Prop. 71, which created the agency in 2004, CIRM is immune from the usual budgetary controls imposed on other state departments. Its funds, which come from state bonds, flow to CIRM directly and cannot be touched by the governor or the legislation.


  1. Anonymous2:26 PM

    Let me see if I have this right: a review of public dollars spent by CIRM will take place, but the public doesn't get to participate.

    Kooky. Illogical.

  2. Although John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog bemoans what he isn't allowed to see, perhaps Simpson should pay more attention to the handwriting already on the wall that is staring him in the face. Simpson et al. challenged the WARF/Thomson patents on ESCs, but here is what Thomson later said:

    “If you can't tell the difference between iPS cells and embryonic stem cells, the embryonic stem cells will turn out to be a historical anomaly.” AND

    “Only time will tell, but I know where I'm going."

    Thus, "who cares" how CIRM thrashes out the last days of a buggy whip industry? The research has been passed by, and the real losers were California taxpayers forced into being venture capitalists betting on the wrong horse.


    A look back at iPS: "they could have caught up in a flash"

    The patent world of iPS (stem cells): Yamanaka, Bayer, and iZumi


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