Sunday, November 16, 2014

Former California Stem Cell Board Member Shestack Comments on the Agency's Record

Jonathan Shestack, a former member of the board of the California stem cell agency, was interviewed by telephone during the reporting for the 10th anniversary article today on the California stem cell agency.

Jonathan Shestack (left) and CIRM Chairman J.T. Thomas
at 2012 board meeting. CSCR photo
Shestack served on the board from 2004 until 2013. A Hollywood producer, he has been a longtime patient advocate for autism. He and his wife co-founded Cure Autism Now in 1995. Here is a link to Shestack's resignation letter from the board.

The 10th anniversary article was written by David Jensen, the publisher of this blog, and appeared in The Sacramento Bee.

Here is a summary of Shestack’s comments, which were trimmed from print article for space reasons.

He said, “CIRM has funded an amazing amount of great projects. It does an amazing amount of good.” He said, however, it should be “more bold going forward.”

Shestack was critical of the senior staff at the agency. He said they did “not like to do what the board wants.” He said, “The staff made a monkey out of the (10) patient advocates (on the board) for eight years.” There was no mechanism by which the board could pressure the staff on “programmatic” issues, he said.

Shestack said he was disappointed in the funding for research funding for autism. He said the agency wants to take credit for more funding on autism than is justified. He suggested that alternative grant-making proposals would been useful, such as creating a round for research on specific diseases.

Shestack was critical of the way in which grant rounds were handled. He said it led to “bloated proposals that people felt they had to approve.” He said the agency could have “more ruthless” on the “big disease” rounds and more willing to spend on basic research. “Ossified” is the way he described the grant-making process. During the review of grant applications, he said the staff “exerted a lot of pressure but in a passive-aggressive way.”

On conflict of interest issues, he said, “Trying to legislate away all conflict is a way to install permanent idiocy.”  Knowledgeable people in a small field such as stem cell research are nearly always going to have conflicts. He said the key is to manage them properly.

Shestack remarked on the impact of the state laws concerning open meetings. Compared to the private sector, they were “incredibly onerous” and made it difficult to do things, although he recognized they were necessary.

Shestack said the board is one of the best he has ever served on.  He said all the members were “pulling incredibly hard for the success of the agency. None of them had a hidden agenda.”

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