Friday, May 18, 2012

Conflict of Interest: CIRM to End Contract with Consultant Linked to Grant Recipient

The California stem cell agency will not renew a contract with a "special advisor" who has been nominated to the board of directors of a firm that is sharing in a $14.5 million grant from the agency.

She is Saira Ramasastry, managing partner of LifeSciences Advisory, LLC, of Emerald Lake Hills, Ca. Ramasastry has worked for CIRM since May of 2010. Last month, she was nominated to the board of Sangamo BioSciences, Inc., of Richmond, Ca. Her responsibilities with CIRM have included "industry analysis and consultation." Sangamo cited her experience with CIRM in its press release on her nomination. She was also employed as a consultant by Sangamo, according to the firm.

Ramasastry's dual roles raise obvious conflict of interest questions. The case highlights the issues that can arise between CIRM and the biotech industry as the agency moves to engage industry more closely. CIRM's response additionally demonstrates a lack of awareness of the potential for serious mischief or worse when dealing with consultants.

The California Stem Cell Report asked CIRM on May 6 for comment on the Sangamo-Ramasastry matter. The questions included whether Ramasastry disclosed to CIRM her work for Sangamo and whether CIRM took any action per the agency's conflict of interest code. CIRM did not respond to the question of whether Ramasastry ever disclosed her ties to Sangamo, which expects to receive $5.2 million from the CIRM grant if it runs a full four years.

Here is the text of CIRM's reply today from spokesman Kevin McCormack.
"Saira Ramasastry was an independent contractor. As required by law, we do ask independent consultants to complete Form 700s(statements of economic interests) if they participate in an agency decision making role. Her role did not fall into that category - she was identified as a 'special advisor' in connection with our external review process - and so she did not have to fill out a Form 700. Her contract with CIRM comes to an end at the end of June, and she will not be elected to Sangamo's board of directors until July. Obviously once she is a member of the Sangamo board she will not be consulting or advising CIRM because of our strict conflict of interest rules."
(Editor's note: The board election is June 21, according to the company, not July.)

Our take: CIRM is heavily dependent on outside contractors. Expenditures for their services are the second largest item in CIRM's operational budget, exceeded only by salaries and benefits of regular employees. The responsibilities of outside contractors cover a wide range of sensitive tasks including computer system security, development of software that deals with proprietary information from grant recipients, analysis of confidential business operations of grant and loan applicants and much more.

The agency needs to know who their consultants are working for besides CIRM. Whether they make decisions for CIRM is beside the point. Gathering information that is not normally accessible to the public can be extremely valuable to businesses and their competitors as well as applicants for CIRM's $3 billion. In Ramasastry's case, she was privy to a great deal of confidential or economically useful information during her work on CIRM's external review and likely much more.

The use of California's Form 700 is hardly adequate to assess conflict of interest issues involving private consultants. The form was developed in the 1970s to deal with elected officials primarily and provides only the grossest sort of look at financial holdings and income.

CIRM's current move to embrace industry requires more scrutiny of conflicting interests – not less. NextThursday the CIRM board will deal with some of its conflict ofinterest rules. It is fine opportunity to ask for a sharper analysis of conflict issues and consultants with an eye to strengthening CIRM regulations and ensuring protection of the agency and its grantees' work – not to mention the interests of the people of California.

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