Monday, March 21, 2011

Trounson's Views on Grant Terminations at CIRM

The California stem cell agency and the NIH have some things in common. They both give away billions of dollars, and they both generally work outside the view of the general public.

But major differences do exist. CIRM operates on borrowed money. The NIH does not – at least nominally. CIRM operates free of legislative or meddling by the state's top official(the governor). The NIH does not. Congress and the president have full sway over the organization. Another difference involves oversight that the agencies exercise on the scientists who are beneficiaries of their largess. The NIH basically sends the money out the door and researchers do whatever they want – at least that is the view of some. CIRM, however, has actually terminated at least three grants (out of 406) from scientists who are not meeting the requirements of the grants. However, the agency has not reported since June 2009 whether additional grants have been withdrawn.

CIRM President Alan Trounson earlier this year described CIRM's efforts to ensure that researchers are abiding by the terms of their grants. He spoke at a meeting in January of the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee. The panel, chaired by the state's top fiscal officer, Controller John Chiang, is a sister organization to CIRM and is the only state entity specifically charged with overseeing CIRM finances.

Trounson made his remarks in connection with his summary of last fall's blue-ribbon external review report and its concern about lean staffing at CIRM.

Here is what Trounson had to say, according to the transcript of his remarks.
"We were going to...increase the number of scientific staff because we actually feed back on our projects. The NIH does not feed back on the projects, nor do many of the research foundations. So when we get quarterly reports or yearly reports, we're feeding back to those scientists, saying, hey, that's not what you really agreed to, or fantastic, you've accelerated....We have a one-to-one on the scientists. And if it's a company, we are making sure that they are meeting those kind of deadlines that they put in.

"That does not happen with NIH nor with many of the other funding bodies. We want it to happen. We're here for a relatively short time. Maybe they're there forever, but we want these dollars to work as effectively as possible. So we have stopped some projects. We've actually terminated them because they didn't do what they agreed to do. It's never happened with an NIH project. And you can imagine some of the senior scientists in California being told you didn't do what you said you were going to do, and we're going to take your grant away because we've given you a couple of opportunities to correct that, but you didn't. And that has happened. So we are different in that respect."
CIRM's oversight on grants is increasingly important as it ventures into clinical trials and more translational research. Terms of those grants and loans require deadlines for specific achievements and go or no-go decisions that are more commonly made by businesses than governmental agencies. With tens of millions of dollars at stake on an individual grant, the process is likely to trigger ferocious behind-the-scenes debate.

Here is more on grant terminations at CIRM.

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