Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Conflict of Interest: Chair of California Stem Cell Agency Grant Review Group Resigns

A conflict of interest on a grant application before the $3 billion California stem cell agency last year led to the resignation of the grant review committee's longstanding chairman, John Sladek of the University of Colorado.

The incident occurred last April but was not publicly disclosed by CIRM until the California Stem Cell Report (CSCR) raised a question earlier this month.

Sladek is professor of neurology, pediatrics and neuroscience at the University of Colorado in Denver and a former president of Cal Lutheran University in the Los Angeles area. He had served on the stem cell agency's grant review group since 2005 and as its chairman from 2009 until April of last year.

Responding to an email from CSCR, James Harrison of Remcho, Johansen and Purcell of San Leandro, Ca., outside counsel to the stem cell agency, said that CIRM's staff uncovered the conflict in April after the grant review session was concluded on March 17. Harrison described it as a "technical violation."

He said,
"While preparing the public summary for Basic Biology III (grant round)applications, CIRM staff discovered that Dr. John Sladek was one of several co-authors on scientific publications with a researcher who was listed as a consultant on a CIRM grant application."
Harrison said,
"This is a technical violation of CIRM's conflict of interest rules, which prohibit a member of the Grants Working Group ("GWG") from participating in the review of an application if the member has co-authored papers with a salaried investigator listed on a CIRM application within a three year window."
Harrison said Sladek's conflict did not violate the state's political reform act nor did he have a financial interest in the application.

Harrison continued,
"Nonetheless, in the spirit of setting an example of strict compliance, Dr. Sladek tendered his resignation from the GWG."
Asked for comment, Sladek said that Harrison's account was accurate and that he had nothing to add. (Both Harrison's and Sladek's verbatim comments can be found here.)

In December, the CIRM board of directors approved, on a unanimous voice vote of the 21 directors present out of 29, a resolution commending Sladek for serving in "exemplary fashion."

The stem cell agency disclosed specifics of the conflict of interest violation after the California Stem Cell Report discovered a vague reference to it in the transcript of the January meeting of the Citizens Financial Oversight and Accountability Committee, the only state entity specifically charged with oversight of the agency and its directors.

Members of the committee had raised questions about conflicts of interests at CIRM. At one point, Harrison said,
"We have also had occasion where we have had a conflict of a very technical nature on the grants working group which we addressed pursuant to our procedure and reported to the legislature."
It was that remark that triggered the request for more details.

Asked about the report to the legislature, Harrison said CIRM wrote a letter to the legislative leadership about the incident. We have asked for a copy of the letter, which we will carry when we receive it.

As of this writing, the review summary for the grant application (RB3-02119) in question was not available on the CIRM web. Normally all the summaries are posted. We have queried the agency concerning its absence.

Harrison also said that in the seven-year history of CIRM no other instances exist of grant review committee members having been determined to be in a conflict of interest after participation in a review.

Our comment: CIRM is to be commended for taking care of this situation quickly last April. Sladek correctly resigned promptly. However, failure to disclose the incident at the time does not reflect well on the California stem cell agency nor does it inspire confidence in the agency's now improving openness and transparency.

CIRM is an enterprise that has substantial built-in conflicts of interests – all legal courtesy of Prop. 71, the ballot initiative that created CIRM. Institutions linked to CIRM directors have received $1.1 billion of the $1.2 billion the agency has given away. A display of reticence in this conflict-of-interest case does little to quell the suspicions of those who have criticized the agency for "cronyism," including the journal Nature and some in the biotech business community and elsewhere. As for the description of the incident as a "very technical" violation, that amounts to a bit of PR. Either it is a violation or it isn't.

Sladek's violation is the sort of thing not well understood by the public. Most public attention is focused on financial conflicts of interest in science. However, professional conflicts of interest involving scientists are among the most invidious. The California Stem Cell Report regularly hears complaints and suspicions about such dealings at CIRM: Big-name scientists receiving favored treatment, academic researchers unfairly evaluating applications from business researchers, younger researchers being shunted to background and more. All this as a billion dollars worth of applications have been evaluated behind closed doors with no public disclosure of the economic or professional interests of the reviewers. The stem cell agency would do well to improve its openness and transparency, particularly as it moves into ticklish and expensive relationships with industry. The first step would be to post on its web site the disclosure forms filed by its grant reviewers but withheld from the public by CIRM.

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