Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Public, Researchers, Industry Left in Dark on CIRM Chair Selection Criteria

The California stem cell agency was admonished in December by the state's top fiscal officer concerning its performance in attempting to elect a new chair to head the $3 billion enterprise.

More transparency and openness are needed, said State Controller John Chiang, chair of the only state panel specifically charged with overseeing CIRM finances.

That advice is going unheeded this week. With only two days left before a key meeting concerning selection of a new chair, left in the dark is the California public – not to mention biotech companies, researchers, patient advocates and state policy makers, and all of the stakeholders in stem cell research.

The agenda for Thursday's meeting of the directors' Governance Subcommittee contains little more than hints at what it is to be considered. The lack of information makes it difficult – to put it mildly – for interested parties who have other business on their plates besides CIRM to come up with thoughtful and constructive comments.

The subcommittee is scheduled to consider a survey of directors' preferences on recommended criteria for the person who is to replace outgoing chairman Robert Klein next June. It is also scheduled to consider changes in the agency's internal governance policies. That's all the information available this morning to the public on the CIRM web site, although the agenda does not even actually mention the survey. No results of the survey, no recommended criteria, no proposed course of action, no language on on the changes in governance -- much less a justification -- are available to the taxpayers of California, who are paying for CIRM's operations.

Unfortunately, CIRM's performance this week on this matter is no exception. The agency has a dismal record when it comes to providing the public with access to information on what its directors are to consider. It comes late or not at all. Often no justification is presented for proposed actions. The issues are not minor. They involve the agency's most important actions and determine its current and future direction.

In six years, CIRM has never offered an explanation for what is a de facto of policy of secrecy. But the agency has laid down a record on openness and transparency that is nearly impossible to defend when CIRM goes to the people again and asks for another $3 billion.


  1. Anonymous9:29 AM

    There are serious and real problems in california that will leave helpless people without aid, schools without
    teachers, products without inspection. People will lose
    their lives.
    If you are a concerned citizen busy yourselves with that. Cirm board is clumsy but not evil. And those who
    take such a minute incident are either busy bodies with no sense of proportion, or stalking horses for businnesses and deans who have money in the game.
    in any event. Look away to something important.

  2. "CIRM board is clumsy but not evil" says the anonymous commentator, who suggests that more serious problems exist in California. Those include the poor and schools. I agree that more serious problems exist for the state than posed by CIRM. But the agency is consuming more than $6 billion in taxpayer funds. Currently the interest costs exceed $1 billion. That is money that could go to the poor, schools and much, much more. How CIRM conducts its business will additionally affect the entire field of stem cell research. As for providing the public with adequate information about matters to be considered by directors, that is a simple task. If CIRM cannot perform that job well and routinely, questions are raised about much more difficult endeavors, such as overseeing the $1 billion in grants that it has awarded. That is not to mention that the agency has a state Constitutional obligation to perform in an open and transparent manner. It is in CIRM's own best interests to do a much better job concerning the matters of considerable import that come before its 29 directors.

  3. David Jensen has properly raised issues with the lack of open discussion of CIRM matters for a long time. In the State of New Jersey, the Appellate Division handed down a decision on February 18, 2011 about how the State of New Jersey conducts its government decision-making in the open:

    The OPMA, "frequently referred to as the 'Sunshine Law,' requires meetings of public bodies to be open to the public at all times, except in certain designated [instances]." Burnett v. Gloucester County Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, 409 N.J. Super. 219, 232 (App. Div. 2009). As we observed in Burnett, "New Jersey has a history of commitment to public participation in government" and the OPMA "reflects this commitment." Indeed, the OPMA opens with an emphatic declaration of the Legislature's strong commitment to the right of the public to be present at all meet-ings of public bodies because such presence enhances the decision-making process. The Act states:

    The Legislature finds and declares that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of public bodies, and to witness in full detail all phases of the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision making of public bodies, is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process; that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society, and hereby declares it to be the public policy of this State to insure the right of its citizens to have adequate advance notice of and the right to attend all meetings of public bodies at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon in any way except only in those circumstances where otherwise the public interest would be clearly endangered or the personal privacy or guaranteed rights of individuals would be clearly in danger of unwarranted invasion.
    [N.J.S.A. 10:4-7.]

    That said, the problems with CIRM go back to the very beginning, wherein promises were made to California voters/taxpayers that were incapable of delivery. See for example

    Ad campaign for California's Proposition 71 as a bait and switch?

    Further, every time I read on californiastemcellreport of some researcher being lured from some other location to go to California via promises of more money, I wonder if California taxpayers ever realized they were going to be playing the role of junior George Steinbrenners in a "sport" that was not offering them any great return.

  4. Anonymous3:27 PM

    Excellent points, Lawrence B. Ebert. This reader couldn't agree more.


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