Wednesday, February 26, 2014

$40 Million California Genomics Award: Missing Names of Conflicted Reviewers Disclosed

When the governing board of the California stem cell agency last month considered proposals for a $40 million genomics stem cell center, it failed to disclose the names of the grant reviewers who were barred from reviewing the applications because of conflicts of interest.

Normally, the names are reported to the public when the $3 billion agency posts summaries of the reviews of applications – prior to consideration of the proposals by the agency's board.

The departure from the agency's normal grant-making procedures is not the first in the genomics round, which is the subject of an internal examination by the agency that includes the board's outside counsel, James Harrison of Remcho Johansen and Purcell of San Leandro, Ca. Allegations of conflicts of interest and complaints about the role of CIRM President Alan Trounson, score manipulation, irregularities and unfairness have been raised.

It is unlikely that the normal disclosure of conflicted reviewers' names would have affected the outcome of the genomic awards at the governing board meeting Jan. 29. However, if questions had been raised at the public board meeting about the absence of the names, concerns about the closed-door review process may well have been elevated, given the earlier conflict-of-interest violation involving reviewer Lee Hood.  

The names of the reviewers with conflicts were added to the review summaries this week following an inquiry Monday by the California Stem Cell Report, which sought to double-check the apparent fact that no reviewers were in conflict since none were listed as recused.

Kevin McCormack, senior director for communications for the agency, replied,
“There were some conflicts of interest with the genomics review but apparently there is a bug in our data system, which is why they aren't showing up. We're going to fix that so thanks for bringing it to our attention.”

Here are the names of the reviewers now listed on the CIRM review summaries as being recused and the four applications involved. The four were recommended for funding by reviewers.

Stanford-Salk's winning application, Richard Gibbs, Maynard OlsonUCLA, Bradley Bernstein, Richard Gibbs, Aarno Palotie, Barry Rosen; Scripps-Illumina, Maynard Olson, Martin Pera, Jared RoachUC San Francisco–UC Berkeley, none.


  1. David, thank you for providing the conflict information- this is the first time I've seen it. Two of the conflicts with my application are understandable- Martin Pera wrote a letter of support for my application, and Maynard Olsen is on Illumina's SAB. I don't know why Jared Roach was in conflict- I'm curious about why. In fact, I would like to learn a lot more about the review process. I know no more about the review than the public knows, and as an applicant, I would expect to be told more.

    1. Re the CIRM review process, it is certainly less than transparent. It became more opaque when the board last year moved the appeal process entirely behind closed doors. While the scientific community in this country seems to favor secret reviews, it is not necessarily good public policy. It allows for closed-door mischief, particularly when conflicts of interests of the reviewers are not known in advance. It relies too heavily on the agency's internal abilities to police potential conflicts, which is precisely the reason for publication of statements of economic and other interests of the grant reviewers.


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