Sunday, September 23, 2012

Text of Comments on Awards to Stem Cell Directors' Institutions

Here is the full text of comments made by the California stem cell agency, Joe Mathews, co-author of “California Crack-Up” and Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the California Political Reform Act, in connection with the Sept. 23, 2012, article in The Sacramento Bee headlined “Stem Cell Cash Mostly Aids Directors' Interests.” The comments were abbreviated for publication in The Bee because of newspaper space constraints.

Comments by Alan Trounson, president of CIRM:
“To make sure we do the best job of managing taxpayer's money it's natural that we turn to people who know most about stem cells and stem cell research. In fact, as the state's own Little Hoover Commission reported in its analysis of CIRM: “The fact that CIRM funding has gone largely to prestigious California universities and research institutes is hardly surprising and should be expected, given the goals of Proposition 71 and the considerable expertise resident in these research centers.” But in recruiting the best minds, we also adopt best practices to ensure that there is no conflict of interest. Every board member has to recuse themselves from voting on, or even being part of a discussion on anything to do with their own institution, or to an institution or company that they have any connections to. All this is done in meetings that are open to the public. CIRM’s conflict of interest rules have been subject to multiple reviews – by the Bureau of State Audits, the Little Hoover Commission and the Controller – and there is no evidence that any of CIRM’s funding decisions have been driven by conflicts of interest. Indeed, CIRM rigorously enforces its conflict of interest rules at each stage of the funding process to ensure that all decisions are made on the merits of the proposal for funding and not as a result of any conflicts of interest. 
“In addition all funding applications are reviewed by an independent panel of scientists on our Grants Working Groups, all of whom are out-of-state and meet strict conflict of interest requirements, and it is their recommendations that help guide the ICOC (CIRM governing board) on what to fund.”
Joe Mathews' comments:
“California ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make public policy. And they are even worse as a method for making scientific policy. 
“It's not merely that this initiative was drafted in such a way as to benefit the enterprises of its directors. It's that, under this initiative's own provisions and the California constitution, it's so hard to change Proposition 71 and fix what ails CIRM. Effectively, these provisions are baked in, and nothing short of another vote of people can really make the change. (Yes, there are provisions, as you know, that permit the legislature by super-majority to do things, but supermajorities are effectively out of reach in California). 
“Sadly, initiatives like Proposition 71 are not uncommon. Many measures are drafted to benefit the people who would support the measure, or oversee the program established. This has been very common with bonds. Essentially, to win the support of various groups whose money and backing is important to passage of a bond, a sponsor of an initiative bond will set up rules and include money specifically intended for each group. This is a form of pay-to-play. Agree to back the initiative and you're in. And it happens because there's no rule against it and because passing initiatives in California require difficult, expensive campaigns. 
“And this sort of thing will continue to happen. There is no serious push to do anything about this. Indeed, good government groups and reformers in California have opposed changes to the initiative process -- because they want to use the process for their own schemes.”
Bob Stern's comments:
“It would have been better had institutions receiving grants not to have had their representatives on the board awarding grants. On the other hand, we want to have the most knowledgeable people on the board overseeing this very important program. The question: Were these people the only qualified ones to sit on the board?”

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