Monday, September 30, 2013

Conflict-of-Interest Changes Coming at California Stem Cell Agency

Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency meet next week to consider changes in conflict of interest rules for the persons who make virtually all the decisions on the hundreds of applications  for the cash that it hands out for research.

Details of the changes and their justification are not yet publicly available for the meeting in Burlingame, Ca., on Oct. 9. The only information that was posted on the CIRM Web site as of this morning was this brief note from the meeting agenda:
“Request for consent to initiate rule-making to amend conflict of interest regulations for non-ICOC members of the Grants Working Group.”
ICOC is the abbreviation for the stem cell governing board, whose members are required to publicly disclose many of their financial interests.

The changes would affect the out-of-state scientists who score grant applications during closed-door deliberations. The agency's governing board, which has the ultimate legal authority for application approval, has ratified 98 percent of the decisions by the grant working group, according to the agency's own calculations.

The agency does not require the scientists to disclose publicly either their economic or professional interests and has resisted proposals for more transparency for years. The interests of reviewers instead are disclosed privately to a limited number of persons within the agency There does not appear to be a significant effort to audit the disclosures for accuracy.

Questions about the legal necessity for public disclosure of grant reviewers' interests have arisen as far back as 2007, including a recommendation by the state auditor that the agency seek an opinion from the state attorney general on the matter. The auditor said,
 “The FPPC (the state's government ethics agency) believes that members of working groups, who perform duties such as advising the committee on standards and policy or evaluating grant applications and making award recommendations to the committee, may need to be included in the conflict-of-interest code. Specifically, the FPPC believes that, under state regulations, working group members may act as decision makers if they make substantive recommendations that are, over an extended period, regularly approved without significant amendment or modification by the committee. Thus, as decision makers, working group members would need to be subject to the conflict-of-interest code.”
However, the agency said, also  in 2007,
  “The recommendations of the CIRM working groups have never been routinely and/or regularly adopted by the ICOC. Until the time that such a pattern is detected, the question you suggest we raise with the attorney general is entirely hypothetical, and is therefore not appropriate for submission. We will, however, continue to monitor approvals for such a pattern and will reconsider our decision if one emerges."
Because of the closed door nature of the grant application review process, conflict questions rarely surface publicly. Last spring, however, the California Stem Cell Report reported conflict violations involving an internationally reknown scientist-reviewer in a $40 million grant round. The scientist, Lee Hood of Seattle, Wash., is a close friend of one of the applicants, Irv Weissman of Stanford. They also own property together in Montana.

As we reported at the time,
“The conflict was not discovered by the agency during the review. It was raised by another reviewer at the end of the review, which, for the first time in CIRM history, failed to conclude with a decision supporting any of the proposals. Reviewers' comments have been sent back to applicants with another review scheduled for November. The agency said Hood will not take part in that session.”
Hood was recruited as a reviewer by CIRM President Alan Trounson, who has been a guest of Weissman at the Hood-Weissman ranch.

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