Monday, January 27, 2014

California's $40 Million Genomics Awards: Stem Cell Agency Defends its Review Practices

The California stem cell agency today defended itself against charges that scoring on grant applications was manipulated in its $40 million genomics grant round to the benefit of a consortium headed by Stanford University researchers.

In response to a query from the California Stem Cell Report, the agency said its practices were “consistent with many previous reviews.” The agency also said that its RFA specifically allowed the adjustments that were made by the agency.

In a letter to the agency's board, Pui-Yan Kwok, leader of a proposal offered by UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley, had challenged the scoring on a $33 million proposal from the Stanford consortium. If the board goes along with reviewers and CIRM President Alan Trounson, Stanford's application will be the only one approved on Wednesday at the board meeting in Berkeley.

Trounson has recommended to the board that it not fund three other applications that were approved for funding by reviewers. He offered no rationale for his recommendation. The board, however, has almost never rejected positive recommendations from its reviewers on hundreds of applications during the last nine years. 

Here is the full text of the agency's response as delivered by Kevin McCormack, senior director of public communications.
“I think the UCSF researcher was mistaken when he said: 'We were surprised to see that the genomic center scores of the top two applications were based on the reviewers removing from consideration the poorest performing center-initiated projects.  The fact that the reviewers could propose removal of individual center-initiated projects was never mentioned in the RFA.'  
“Because the RFA specifically states: 'The GWG will make funding recommendations to the ICOC concerning which Centers and which Center-initiated projects (within a particular award) to fund. The GWG may also make specific recommendations concerning the budget for each proposed award. The ICOC will make final funding decisions.' 
“This practice is consistent with many previous reviews in which the GWG recommended removal of distinct Specific Aims or proposed activities. 
“Also in the letter, the UCSF researcher says: 'Even more appalling is that this was applied only to the two applications (that) ended up with the highest scores.  The end result is that two centers' scores were artificially inflated to 88 and 82, respectively.  Despite this uneven application of the review process, two other applications received Tier 1 (recommended for funding) scores.  This appearance of preferential treatment makes the process suspect.' 
“However, reviewers were instructed that they could recommend removal of specific Center Initiated Projects (provided that at least 2 remain) if they felt this action would strengthen the overall proposal. This option was available for every application considered.
“For proposals where there was no recommendation to remove Center Initiated Projects, reviewers did not believe that the overall score would be significantly increased by such removal.”

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