Sunday, January 26, 2014

Alan Trounson's Opaque Messages, Genomics and $40 Million

Cryptic is probably a good word for the messages delivered last week by the president of the California stem cell agency, Alan Trounson, in his recommendations in the agency's $40 million genomics round. Odd might be another.

Some might say Trounson is ill-serving both the board that hired him and California taxpayers.

Alan Trounson
UCSD photo
In a document on the CIRM Web site, Trounson, who is a noted researcher from Australia, says the 29-member governing board of the agency should give $33 million to a Stanford-led consortium to create a stem cell genomics center. That coincides with the opinions of the agency's blue-ribbon scientific reviewers.

Trounson's rationale, however, is no more than a 23-word phrase among four paragraphs that are little more than a generic description of a stem cell genomic center. The Stanford proposal, he said, “will fulfill all of the aims of the RFA and provide an excellent, responsive and comprehensive genomics resource for California stem cell researchers.”

Trounson's recommendations on three competing proposals(here, here and here), all of which were also approved for funding by reviewers, are even more opaque. He simply says,
“CIRM Staff Recommendation: Do not fund”
Trounson's name is missing from the CIRM documents nixing the three proposals. But Trounson calls the shots at the agency and signs off on any advice to his board.

His recommendations would be a dramatic and major change in how the board treats the positive decisions of its reviewers. Over its nine-year history, the board has almost never overridden positive findings by reviewers. Invariably they are rubber-stamped with no discussion at public board meetings.

CIRM's directors are loathe to substitute their judgment for reviewers for a variety of reasons. One is that the board members do not see the actual applications – only the same review summaries provided to the public. The identities of the applicants are also withheld from directors prior to their vote on applications. Board members have repeatedly said they do not have sufficient information to reverse reviewer decisions. They also do not want to offend reviewers. The board fears that they might abandon the task of reviewing applications for the agency if their decisions are not supported by the board.

Trounson, who announced last fall he is leaving the stem cell agency, offered no explanation for his move to turn the longstanding board practice on its head. Nor did he discuss why the genomics round should be limited to one award when the RFA stipulated one or two.

He did not discuss the policy implications of the state of California giving a $33 million leg-up to a single consortium in a hot, fast-growing scientific and business arena. He did not comment on the possibility that this consortium would be less than welcoming to rival researchers. 

He did not discuss whether creation of this consortium was akin to creating an organization like WARF that sets the rules and controls the playing field on the use of important human embryonic stem cell lines, much to the displeasure of many scientists, including Trounson himself. Nor did he even publicly disclose the amount of money that was requested by researchers whose applications he would deny.

There may be good reasons for Trounson's position. But he owes the board and the public more than a cryptic decree sent forth from his post at 210 King Street in San Francisco.  Especially in light of the charges of unfairness, score manipulation and more leveled last week by rival researchers in the round.

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