Monday, January 24, 2011

CIRM Stingy with Info on Matters Before Directors This Week

With less than three business days left before Thursday's meeting of the directors of the $3 billion stem cell agency, CIRM has not yet produced details for the public on three significant matters that are to be considered.

The agency's failure to provide the information for the biotech industry, researchers, patient advocates, policy makers and the public via the directors' agenda is not a onetime event. It is part of a pattern -- a de facto policy -- that reflects poorly on CIRM. Withholding information about board matters effectively stifles participation by the public and discourages coverage by the media.  It also fails to meet the pledge of CIRM Chairman Robert Klein to adhere to the highest standards of openness and transparency.

However, more information on two items is now available. One involves a $6.6 million, visiting faculty program. Another deals with selection of grant reviewers, something of a sorepoint within the biotech industry.

The CIRM faculty plan states:
"The CIRM Visiting Faculty Award will operate through supplemental awards to existing CIRM-funded research grants, all of which have been peer reviewed and approved by the ICOC. The funds will enable a sabbatical researcher (Visiting Scientist) to work on an existing CIRM-funded research project for 6-12 months. The supplemental CIRM funds will cover up to 50% of the Visiting Scientist's salary and fringe benefits costs, with the remainder being paid by the Visiting Scientist’s home institution."
Applications would be submitted by the recipient of an existing research grant – who would be known as the "host scientist." The proposal envisions up to 30 awards with decisions on awards being made by CIRM staff.

Also before directors are eight proposed new alternate scientific members of the grants review group. None appear to have significant biotech industry experience. The agency has drawn fire from industry for its lack of grant reviewers who have a business background. CIRM's own external review panel said last fall,
"The majority of granting processes are designed on academic models. These processes do not necessarily fit the needs or timelines of industry and/or the realities of managing industry projects. Granting processes and funding criteria could be clarified and streamlined from an industry perspective and timelines for decision-making could be aligned with industry norms."
Regarding the review's sweeping recommendations themselves, CIRM President Alan Trounson said in early December that he would report on how they should be implemented. His report is not on the board's agenda for this month. The next CIRM board meeting is scheduled for March 9-10.

As for the previously mentioned three agenda items lacking information, one is a proposal to subsidize trips to Toronto in June for perhaps hundreds of persons to attend an international stem cell conference. The proposal contains no cost estimate nor does it indicate how many persons would be involved. We calculated a very rough estimate of $3,000 a person, depending on a number of variables. This may be worthwhile effort. We are inclined to think there is considerable value for scientists at such meetings. But so far CIRM has failed to do even a poor job of making the case for the subsidy program.

Another item needs much more explanation about why it is being considered this week. Only 22 words are devoted to it on the agenda although it is an unusual exception to the normal grant approval process. The item concerns an application for $4 million by Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in the early translational round. Decisions on that round were made last October by CIRM directors. Scientific reviewers did not approve the Gage application for funding, but it was set aside by the directors for additional consideration.

This week's agenda provides no hint concerning that background and no clue about why the application is still around. Its history can be unearthed from CIRM documents, although virtually all ordinary users of the CIRM web site would find the task daunting if not impossible. Here is a brief synopsis of the story:

At the Oct. 21, 2010, CIRM board meeting, CIRM Director Joan Samuelson, a patient advocate for Parkinson's and who also is living with the disease, moved to have directors override the negative decision by reviewers. During the discussion at the October meeting, CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy, also a patient advocate and member of the grants review committee, said in support,
"One of the key factors that was very motivating was the stature of the scientist and paucity of people working in Parkinson's in California. Eminent neurologists within the room said we campaigned (in 2004 for Prop. 71) -- we had Michael J. Fox on TV -- we talked about Parkinson's as a target. But one of the problems in our ability to fund this in California is that there's a lack of a sufficient number of outstanding Parkinson's (researchers) -- other diseases are more or better represented, at least this is what is stated, and the opportunity to get this particular eminent scientist into this arena was a value in and of itself."
The discussion at the October board meeting went beyond the specific grant and into procedures of the board and the grant review process, including discussion how of exceptions are made.

Ultimately the board asked CIRM President Trounson to look into the grant and report back on his views.

Researchers, patient advocates and others interested in CIRM funding would be well-advised to read the discussion, which covers about 17 pages of the transcript beginning on p. 144. Also of interest at the Thursday meeting concerning funding is an appeal by a Stanford researcher, Stefan Heller, in the tools and technology round that is before directors.

The third matter that is shy of information involves changes in the agency's biotech loan program and its payback provisions. We wrote earlier about what those might involve. Our take can be found here. Sphere: Related Content

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