Friday, February 03, 2012

IOM Coming Up Short on Independent Analysis of the California Stem Cell Agency

The blue-ribbon panel examining the performance of the $3 billion California stem cell agency is midway through its public process and is yet to hear from a single independent witness during its open sessions.

The panel's report and recommendations are due this fall and are expected to have a major impact on the seven-year-old agency and its future.

So far, the IOM panel has heard only from employees or directors of the agency and persons representing institutions that have received $418 million in CIRM cash.

The panel of scientists and academics was put together by the prestigious Institute of Medicine under a $700,000 contract with the stem cell agency itself. At the 2010 meeting during which agency directors approved the contract, they expressed hope that the IOM panel's findings would bolster public support for another multibillion dollar bond measure for the agency, which expects to run out of funds for new grants in 2017.

Last week, the California Stem Cell Report asked the IOM about its plans to gather independent or critical information about the stem cell agency's performance. With only one more California public meeting scheduled, the IOM said that it is seeking the "full range of perspectives" but did not respond directly to questions about the specifics of how it is going to fulfill that task.

None of the four organizations in California that have an independent perspective on CIRM have been contacted by the IOM, the California Stem Cell Report has been told. They are the state's Little Hoover Commission, the Center for Genetics and Society, Consumer Watchdog and the Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee, which is the only state body specifically charged with oversight of CIRM and its directors and which is chaired by the state's top fiscal officer, Controller John Chiang. A spokeswoman for the IOM panel said, however, it plans to touch base with at least some of the four.

In response to questions from the California Stem Cell Report, Christine Stencel, the IOM spokeswoman, said the IOM also wants to hear comments from businesses whose applications have been rejected by CIRM. However, she said the panel is still working on "ways to get them." She did not respond directly to questions about how many of such businesses would be interviewed or how they would be selected. The tiny number of CIRM grants to business is a sore spot with industry. Even directors and CIRM's own "external review" panel have said much more is needed.

In response to a question about complaints about conflicts of interest on the part of CIRM reviewers, Stencel was also non-specific, saying only that the panel wants to "obtain all relevant insights." She did not respond directly to a question about whether the panel would examine "private complaints" filed with CIRM by rejected applicants.

Currently the IOM has forms posted online that interested parties, if they know about the existence of the forms, can use to comment on CIRM. We asked whether the panel plans to do more than passively post the forms, specifically whether it plans to email them to all CIRM applicants who were rejected. We also asked about IOM plans to follow up to generate an adequate response. Stencel said the IOM is "proactively working" to get survey responses but did not say what specific steps it was taking.

Our comment?

The IOM has a well-deserved reputation for rigor and thoroughness. However, the IOM is all but unknown to 99 pecent of the public, which will be the ultimate consumer of its findings on the stem cell agency. The fact that the IOM is being paid $700,000 by CIRM will undoubtedly raise questions in the minds of some about IOM's own objectivity. The panel itself consists of persons who have like-minded interests and sympathy with CIRM and its 485 grant recipients. No member of the panel is likely to publicly discourage more scientific research, even if CIRM is deemed to be failing to fulfill the voters expectations in 2004 when they created the agency. All the more reason to aggressively seek out those with contrary views about CIRM's performances, if the IOM's report is to have maximum credibility.

Earlier this week we heard from a knowledgeable and longtime observer of the research scene, who said that the IOM looks at things "differently than regular people" and views scientists who receive funding from CIRM as "independent." The IOM's Stencel responded by reiterating that the IOM is seeking the full range of information from the full range of sources.

The IOM evaluation of CIRM's performance is much too far along not to have progressed further with its attempts to hear from independent and critical voices about CIRM. Generalizations to the effect that "we are going to get to it" do not serve the panel well. The IOM should lay out publicly and quite specifically its plans to aggressively seek thoughtful analysis from parties that do not have financial or professional links to CIRM, as well as from those who feel they have received a short shrift from the $3 billion enterprise.

You can read the full text of the questions from the California Stem Cell Report and the IOM responses here.

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