Thursday, June 09, 2011

From Conflicts of Interest to Unfilled Promises: LA Times Columnist Lambastes CIRM

California's largest circulation newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, was the stage this week for a broadside concerning the failings of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

Among other things, the June 7 column by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Hiltzik, said CIRM
  • "...(H)as always displayed a curious lack of vision about its own responsibilities,"
  • Has not "resolved the persistent questions about whether its grant-making process is subject to adequate public oversight or free of conflicts of interest, "
  • Has failed to deal with "chronic management difficulties,"
  • Has not found the therapies promised in the 2004 ballot campaign that created the agency and has failed to temper the "inflated optimism" created by electioneering rhetoric.
"Indeed," Hiltzik wrote, "given the current research and budgetary environment, the institute probably shouldn't exist."

All this coming from a writer who also said, " There's no question that stem cell research is important and potentially groundbreaking."

Hiltzik has been critical of CIRM since the 2004 election for a host of reasons. (See here,here, here and here.) Some may disagree with his opinions, but his columns appear in the nation's fourth largest circulation newspaper, currently with 605,243 average daily copies for the most recent six month period. Its influence, however, is much larger. It boasts a cumulative readership over a seven-day period of 4.4 million, exceeding even the best-performing TV stations in the area. The Times defines what is news in the Los Angeles basin, if not all of Southern California. It is the starting point for TV and radio news coverage in the area every day of the week. And when journalists elsewhere in the country look for solid coverage of California affairs, the Los Angeles Times is one of the first places they go.

All something for CIRM to consider as its governing board weighs the choice of a new chairman and forges ahead with aggressive forays into big-ticket financing rounds aimed at pushing stem cells into the clinic. The stem cell agency is also gearing up for another pitch to California voters for billions more in state bonds, perhaps as much as $5 billion, on top of the $3 billion it already has. (Double those amounts for the true cost when you add in the interest on the borrowed money.) But unless something changes in a major way in the California economy or in CIRM's slim list of accomplishments, that bond proposal is likely to be defeated and CIRM will run out of government funds in about five years, maybe less depending on its burn rate.

One way to look at the Hiltzik column in the Times, as well as other stories of that ilk, is that they are only a PR problem. Improve CIRM messaging, hire another $200,000-year spokesman and send out more Tweets on Twitter. That takes care of it. Another view would hold that genuine improvements need to be made, procedures altered and meaningful results – that is, meaningful to the untutored public – generated and cemented in the public mind. It is not as if Hiltzik is a lone voice.  Even CIRM's own blue-ribbon external review panel last fall stressed the need for significant changes, although not necessarily all those mentioned by the Times writer.

Hiltzik quoted state Controller John Chiang, who is the state's top fiscal officer and who chairs the only state entity with specific oversight of CIRM, as saying,
"We're at a critical crossroads. The voters invested a significant amount of money for what they thought was going to be life-changing improvement….[CIRM] hasn't produced a game-changer in the public mind-set."
Coming up in the next year or so are two expensive assessments of CIRM – total cost around $1 million. CIRM directors are talking about making changes based on those recommendations. However, it is not to early to act on some issues that already are troubling CIRM and hampering its abilities to fulfill the seven-year-old election promises to millions of California voters.

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