California Stem Cell Agency Comes Under Fire On Transparency
SANTA MONICA, Calif. - The California stem cell agency's identification of only 12 research institutions recommended to compete for $260 million in facilities grants makes a mockery of any claim to openness and transparency in the selection process, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) said today.
The non-partisan, non-profit consumer advocacy organization called for immediate identification of all the applicants and what level of funding they had originally sought. FTCR added that the need for complete transparency was imperative given recent conflict of interest problems.
"We don't know what the universities asked for," said John M. Simpson, FTCR's Stem Cell Project Director. "We only know what the scientific reviewers in their closed, clubby, secret meeting decided to recommend."
The stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), released the names of 12 institutions that were recommended by a panel of out-of-state scientists for one of three categories of grants. It did not identify five institutions that filed applications, but were not recommended by the so-called Grants Working Group. Nor did the stem cell agency say which level of funding each institution had originally sought.
The three funding levels are "CIRM Institutes," which would get $25 to $50 million; "CIRM Centers of Excellence," eligible for $10 to $25 million and more specialized but smaller projects known as "CIRM Special Projects", slated to receive $5 to $10 million.
The stem cell agency has repeatedly insisted that decisions are made by the stem cell board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC). The Grants Working Group only makes recommendations. The stem cell board will consider the grant recommendations at its January meeting and could reject them, move institutions into different categories or invite some of the five that didn't pass muster by the scientific panel to continue their applications.
The organizations recommended are the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, the Buck Institute and the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which includes UC San Diego, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Scripps Research Institute.
"All of the institutions which applied -- the best universities and research organizations in the state -- should have been identified from the beginning," said Simpson. "I don't agree with the position, but I understand the argument that individual researchers aren't identified when they apply for grants. This is different: we're talking about large institutions, not individuals."
FTCR said the only way to track the grant award process and ensure fairness is if the entire process is open. Transparency is even more imperative given recent conflict of interest problems, FTCR said.
Conflict problems involving young faculty grants resulted in 10 applications being rejected for consideration by the ICOC this week. Under the law, ICOC members cannot take part in decisions about grants to their institutions. Despite those rules some board members who are university deans wrote letters supporting applicants from their schools.
Earlier it was discovered that John Reed, board member and president of the Burnham Institute, had improperly intervened seeking to overcome the rejection of a $638,000 grant to his institution. California's Fair Political Practices Commission agreed to investigate a conflict of interest complaint against Reed brought by FTCR. He as recused himself from all ICOC activity during the investigation.
"Stem cell board Chairman Robert Klein continually pays lip service to transparency. If he truly believes in the concept, he must move those board members and CIRM staff who come from a secretive scientific culture to understand what is required for good public policy," said Simpson. "The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is not a private club or foundation. It's a state agency doing the public's business and needs to be run that way."
Proposition 71, passed by 59 percent of Californians in 2004, created the stem cell institute. FTCR's Stem Cell Oversight and Accountability Project is working to ensure that California's landmark stem cell research program offers accessible and affordable cures and treatments to the taxpayers who have funded it. The program will award $3 billion in grants over a decade. Bond financing charges mean the project, the largest source of stem cell research funding in the world, will cost California taxpayers $6 billion.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights is California's leading non-profit and non-partisan consumer watchdog group. For more information visit us on the web at: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/.
Source: Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights