Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Nearly $1 Million Award, the California Stem Cell Agency and the Revolving Door

Directors of the California stem cell agency tomorrow are scheduled to deal once again with a $900,424 proposed award to a Stanford researcher who recently hired a top staffer from the state research effort.

The award would go to Helen Blau, one of the leaders of Baxter Laboratory at Stanford. On Monday, Natalie DeWitt, who was special projects officer for former CIRM President Alan Trounson, went to work for Baxter as director of research development.

The award first came up at the directors' meeting May 29. It was recommended for board approval by Trounson and unidentified CIRM staff.

During that meeting, CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy, who is also a member of the grant review group, said that a copy of the application and the scientific critique was not provided to him at the March 24 review session. The application was submitted by Blau in January.

Sheehy and another director said the review was flawed. Sheehy noted that the Blau proposal was not approved for funding by the agency's out-of-state scientific reviewers. He said that during the closed-door review session several negative comments were made about the proposal during oral discussion. The application received a scientific score of 73, two points below the cut-off for funding. CIRM staff said, however, the proposal had merit and should be funded.

Director Sherry Lansing said it was important for the board to be open and transparent and suggested that the application be sent back to the full review group for further consideration. The 29-member board did so on a 9-0 vote. Members not voting either had conflicts of interest or were not present.

At the time of the meeting, DeWitt's then future employment by Baxter was not widely known and was not mentioned during the discussion.

Asked for comment today by the California Stem Cell Report, DeWitt said in a telephone interview that she was not involved in any way with the application. She also said she has not been involved with any of Blau's applications to CIRM or those from Garry Nolan or Peter Jackson, the other two leaders of the Baxter lab. Blau has been awarded $2.8 million by CIRM and Nolan $1.3 million. He is also a leader on a $20 million CIRM grant.

In response to questions, CIRM spokesman Kevin McCormack today said in an email that DeWitt was not involved with the $900,424 application by Blau. He said DeWitt served notice May 19. DeWitt said that sometime in late April or May that she “let a few key people (at the agency) know” that she was looking for work elsewhere and “spoke with the (CIRM) lawyers.”

DeWitt said her work at CIRM involved the $70 million Alpha Clinic proposal and the $40 million stem cell genomics award that went to a Stanford-led consortium. She said Baxter's Peter Jackson, who has some expertise in human genetic disease, is not involved in the genomics proposal. The CIRM contract on the award is yet to be signed.

DeWitt was mentioned yesterday in an article on the California Stem Cell Report dealing with “revolving door” issues involving government employees who go to work for enterprises that are linked to their former agency. The issues are likely to become of more concern to the stem cell agency in the next couple of years. The agency is scheduled to run out of money for new grants in 2017, and some employees are likely to be looking for work in the stem cell field in California, which only involves a small number of private and public enterprises.

CIRM employees are briefed on conflict-of-interest and revolving door issues, according to the agency. Its employee handbook also contains information on the subject along with a link to a state Fair Political Practices Commission document further explaining revolving door rules.

It says state officials are barred from taking part in decisions that directly relate to a prospective employer. The document says,
“The ban of influencing prospective employment prohibits any public official from making, participating in making, or influencing a governmental decision that directly relates to a prospective employer while negotiating or after reaching an employment arrangement.”
It continues,
 “The ban on influencing prospective employment is triggered by negotiating or having an arrangement regarding prospective employment. While submitting a résumé or an application to a prospective employer does not trigger the ban, the following contacts will trigger the ban:
  • “An interview with an employer or his or her agent.
  • “Discussing an offer of employment with an employer or his or her agent.
  • “Accepting an offer of employment
In response to a question, McCormack said,
“Very few people, Natalie included, tell their employer that they are looking for work so I have no idea when she started looking.”
McCormack did not respond to a request for the names of the CIRM staff involved in making the recommendation to approve the $900,424 Blau award.

At tomorrow's teleconference meeting, the CIRM board is scheduled to act on a proposal to have the Blau application re-examined by a subset of the grant review group -- not the full group. Interested parties can either take part in the meeting or listen in from a number of sites in Northern and Southern California and elsewhere. Specific locations can be found on the agenda

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:40 PM

    DeWitt and the rest should be banned from employment at the institutions that CIRM funded- the genomics RFA that she wrote was unabashedly tailored to favor Stanford. Stanford can afford to hire all of its CIRM benefactors, having received far more of the taxpayers' money than any other institution- more than $300 MILLION of the $2 billion so far distributed by CIRM. Alan Trounson corrupted the agency and there seems to be no sense of CIRM's purpose left- it's a failure, and the state should shut them down.


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