Saturday, January 19, 2013

Stem Cell Agency Chair Pressing for Consensus on IOM Recommendations

The chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, Jonathan Thomas, yesterday outlined how he intends to proceed next week when the agency's governing board considers the far-reaching recommendations of a blue-ribbon Institute of Medicine panel.

“While some of the IOM’s recommendations are administrative in nature and can be implemented, others are much more complex and would require changes in (governing) board policy or legislative changes.” 
Jonathan Thomas, chairman of CIRM governing board at far right. Art
Torres (center), co-vice chair and former state Democratic party chairman,
who would  play key role in dealing with lawmakers. Robert Klein is at the
 left in this 2011 meeting, Klein's last as chairman of the agency and the one
 in which Thomas was elected chairman. 
He continued,
“My goal is to strive to reach consensus on a course of action on the 23rd. However, if the board isn’t able to choose a course of action at this time we will continue the conversation and bring it up at future board meetings until we reach agreement.”
It is worth noting that Thomas did not mention the possibility of having to ask the people of California to amend the state constitution, which would require a statewide election. Opponents to change at the agency have used that possibility to discourage action. (See here and here.) An election would be costly, politically difficult and could open the door to additional unwelcome changes at the eight-year-old research enterprise.

Thomas' desire for a consensus among the 29 board members – instead of a simple majority – could be a stumbling block as the board becomes snarled internally, perhaps for months or more. The board normally meets only about once a month and has a full slate of regular business on those occasions. The agency will run out of money for new grants in less than four years, and action on the IOM recommendations seems a necessary prelude to winning continued financial support.

While four years would appear to an ample period of time, making the sort of changes the IOM recommends would require legislative action, which probably would take a minimum of a year. Timing is important as well. The current leaders in the state Senate and Assembly will be termed out in 2014. Starting all over with novice leadership, changes in key committee chairmanships and so forth would make the task even more difficult. Then there is the need to address strategies for continued financial support. Should the agency seek a new statewide bond measure (the current funding mechanism)? If so campaign committees need to be formed, electoral strategies planned and tested and tens of millions of dollars raised for campaign expenses. If private funds instead are to be raised to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars(the agency spends about $300 million a year), such an effort would also require considerable time. To keep the funding pipeline full, all of this should be completed well before the money runs out in 2017.

Dilly-dallying this year in drawn-out, fruitless debate over the IOM proposals would be an unfortunate beginning should CIRM directors actually want to continue the existence of the organization.

In his blog item, Thomas sounded this final note.
“It’s likely the debate will be passionate – everyone involved in this work cares deeply about it – and there will undoubtedly be disagreements, but ultimately we all share the same goal, a desire to make sure that whatever we decide helps make the stem cell agency even stronger and more effective, and is in the best interests of the people of California.”

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