Friday, June 17, 2011

Openness Failure – Public Stiffed on Major California Stem Cell Matters

With only two business days remaining before a critical directors' meeting of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, the research institute has failed to provide basic background information to the public and the California stem cell community on many of the issues to be decided.

The CIRM openness failure makes it nearly impossible for researchers and biotech business executives and the public to make thoughtful suggestions or raise questions before the matters will be approved at the meeting next Wednesday in San Diego. The failure is not a onetime breakdown. It is the latest in a years-long demonstration of mismanagement of what should be a routine task. The dearth of information additionally damages CIRM's ability to generate the kind of positive news stories about its efforts that directors increasingly desire. 

The matters involved next week are not picayune. One involves major changes in the peer review process on applications for big-ticket, high profile grants ($20 million or so) on which CIRM is staking its future as well as the actual clinical development of stem cell therapies. The proposal will immerse CIRM ever more deeply in the earliest stages of grant applications. Some candidates will benefit. Others will lose out. But no details are available via the board meeting agenda about what exactly is under consideration.

Another matter with missing information involves creation of a $25 million "opportunity fund" that would be controlled by CIRM President Alan Trounson – not the CIRM board. Another involves extension of a $90 million training program. Still another involves a new, $180,000 federal lobbying campaign – a subject that generated some controversy two years ago.

Persons who understand the murky navigational nuances of the CIRM web site might be able to ferret out some outdated information dealing with the issues. But one cannot assume that two- and three-week-old memos, some of which are quite scanty, represent exactly what will be presented to CIRM directors next week.

This is not a problem for the public alone. Some CIRM directors have complained that they have received documents too late to examine them carefully. It is clearly unreasonable to expect the 29 persons (business executives, medical school deans, physicians and so forth) who serve on the board to push aside all their other concerns to perform a last minute study of material that should have been provided days earlier.

The responsibility for this sad state of affairs rests clearly with CIRM Chairman Robert Klein and CIRM President Alan Trounson. Klein controls the board agenda. Trounson is responsible for the staff work necessary to generate most of information. Klein's staff generates the rest.

One can only hope that the election of a new chair next week and revision of the CIRM management structure will also mean a major improvement in a critical interface between a $3 billion enterprise and the people who are paying for it – not to mention Californa's entire stem cell research community.  

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