Monday, January 28, 2013

CIRM's Thomas: Conflicts 'Put to Bed' at Stem Cell Agency

The chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, Jonathan Thomas, today hailed board action last week as putting “to bed once and for all” questions about financial conflicts of interest by members of the agency's governing board.

Writing on the agency's blog, Thomas pointed to board approval of a new policy that would bar 13 of the 29 members of the governing board from voting on any grants whatsoever. The 13 are the members who are “appointed from an institution that is eligible to receive money.” Three other board members have ties to institutions that receive money. Two are employees of the institutions and one is the chair of the University of California board of regents, Sherry Lansing. All three are appointed as patient advocate members of the board. Currently all 16 are barred individually from voting on grants to their institutions, but they can vote for awards to other institutions.

Thomas proposed the plan last week to the governing board, which approved it on a 23-0 vote with one abstention. Thomas advanced the proposal in response to the recommendations of a 17-month study by the Institute of Medicine(IOM). CIRM paid $700,000 for the blue-ribbon report, hoping that it would serve as the basis for continued financing of the agency beyond 2017, when funds for new grants run out.

The IOM's far-reaching recommendations included creation of a majority of independent members on the board, which would mean some current members of the board would lose their seats. No institutions would be guaranteed seats on the board. Currently five members are appointed from the University of California. The Thomas plan does not deal with those recommendations.

The IOM said “far too many” members of the board have ties to institutions that receive funds from CIRM. Compilations by the California Stem Cell Report show that about 90 percent of the $1.7 billion that the board has awarded has gone to institutions linked to directors.

Thomas said that the board last week “endorsed a framework of proposals that would dramatically change the way the board works, and directly addresses the concerns and recommendations of the IOM, in particular their feeling that the way our Board works could create a perception of conflict of interest.”

Concerning the change in voting for the 13 board members, Thomas wrote,
“It was not an easy change to propose and certainly not an easy one for our board members to approve. They all care deeply about our mission and devote a great deal of thought, time and energy to helping us do our work. So for 13 of them to agree to abstain from a key aspect of their work was difficult to say the least. And yet they did it because they felt it was important for the overall goal of the agency.”
Thomas continued,
“So why did we take this approach? It's simple. We want people to focus on the great work we do, on the groundbreaking research we fund, and the impact we are having on the field of regenerative medicine not just in California but throughout the U.S. and around the world. As long as there are perceptions of conflict of interest hanging over the Board, this will continue to be difficult.”
Thomas said,
“This puts the economic conflicts issue to bed once and for all.”

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