Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Los Angeles Times Columnist: Stem Cell Agency Still Saddled with Conflict of Interest Problems

The governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency will remain dominated by “special interests” even with the adoption of a plan last week responding to the far-reaching recommendations of a blue-ribbon Institute of Medicine (IOM) study, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times said today.

Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer Prize winning writer and author, wrote that IOM study showed the agency “the path to cleansing itself of its aura of connivance and influence trading. That the board can't even bring itself to place the proposals before the voters or their elected representatives only shows how much money it's willing to waste to keep living in its own little world.”

Hiltzik's column in California'slargest circulation newspaper included fresh comments from both Harold Shapiro, who chaired 17-month IOM study, which was commissioned by CIRM, and Jonathan Thomas, the chairman of CIRM and who drew up the response.

Hiltzik wrote that the study “concluded that the CIRM board members were saddled with 'almost unavoidable conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived.'” He continued,
“That's because by law, 23 of the 29 members must be representatives of California institutions eligible for CIRM grants or of disease advocacy groups with their own interest in steering money toward their particular concerns. 
“As a remedy, the panel proposed eliminating some board slots reserved for grant-receiving institutions by Proposition 71, the 2004 initiative that created the agency. The idea was to fill those slots with truly independent members free of any stake in CIRM funding, even indirectly.”
 Hiltzik wrote,
 "Thomas told me his proposal dealt with even perceived conflicts of interest on the board in such "definitive fashion" that it won't be necessary to bother the Legislature, much less the voters, with such big changes as remaking the board with a majority of independent members. He pointed out, not without some pride, that one board member called his proposed changes 'draconian.'"
Hiltzik had some praise for Thomas.
“Let's stipulate that Thomas has, in CIRM terms, moved a mountain by jostling the board even this far. Since its inception, the board has set records for arrogance. That's a direct legacy from Proposition 71, which exempted the stem cell program, uniquely among California government bodies, from any practical oversight by the Legislature or elected officials.”
The Times columnist continued,
“Shapiro told me from his Princeton office that Thomas' proposals were 'a significant step in the right direction, which at least indicates that they haven't ignored the report.' But he doesn't share Thomas' view that voluntary recusals solve the conflict of interest problem. That can be done, Shapiro said, only by replacing stake-holding board members with independents.
"'The more you can reduce the inherent conflicts, the better off everyone is going to be,' he said. The board will 'have to go further over time, in my view.'"
Hiltzik wrote,
“The Shapiro panel said it didn't find any instances of inappropriate behavior by board members or specific conflicts, but there are two reasons for that: It didn't search for any, and Proposition 71 defined certain conflicts out of existence. The measure states that it's no conflict for a board member to also be an officer of an academic institution or private corporation that might be applying for grants.

“One of the CIRM board's enduring self-delusions is that its conflicts of interest are purely a matter of 'perception.' But there have been documented instances of favoritism shown to well-connected grant or loan applicants, and at least one overt attempt by a board member to overturn a rejection of his institution's project. So much of the board's discussion takes place behind closed doors or informally that the opportunities for mutual back scratching are incalculable.
“Thomas' 'draconian' proposals won't change this state of affairs. Special interests will still dominate the board. Will barring 13 members from voting on grants while giving them full rein to participate in discussions really eradicate even the perception of conflicts? You'd have to be terminally naive to think so.”

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