Stem cell agency President Alan Trounson told members of the Facilities Working Group (FWG) at the beginning of their two-day meeting Friday and Saturday near San Francisco Airport that they faced a "terribly hard choice in the face of a 22 percent gap between what's requested and what you've got."
Twelve applicants wanted a total of around $336 million to build stem cell research facilities. Trounson called it the largest stem cell infrastructure component in the world. The problem was that the stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), plans on handing out only $262 million -- no small amount, but a considerable shortfall from the requests.
"I hope you don't fell stressed," said Trounson. "I would ..."
First the 10-member FWG, comprised of real estate experts and patient advocates scored each application. This came after reports from two of the real estate expert group members, a CIRM staff report, and an analysis by a laboratory planner, Steve Copenhagen. He assigned two letter grades to each project, one for functionality and the other for value.
Applicants also made brief presentations and answered questions from the committee. Each committee member then awarded numerical scores in each of five categories: value (up to 25 points), leverage (25 points), urgency (20 points), shared resources (15 points) and functionality (15 points). There was a maximum of 100 possible points.
An average total score for each applicant was calculated. The scores: Stanford 95, UC San Francisco 95, UC Berkeley 88, the San Diego consortium of UCSD, Burnham, Salk and Scripps 86, UC Merced 85, UC Davis 84, University of Southern California 84, UC Santa Cruz 83, Buck Institute 82, UC Irvine 80, UC Santa Barbara 74 and UCLA 73.
After the scoring, the committee took up the question of how to make cuts. Trounson proposed using the FWG score as a percent to set the funding level for each. So, for example, the recommendation for Stanford with a 95, was to fund $47.5 million or 95 percent of its $50 million request.
Cranking the numbers, roughly $48 million was cut. The goal for the FWG was to narrow the gap $50 million and leave the next $24 million to the stem cell oversight committee which has final say. The committee and the applicants considered $48 million a good start.
Though nobody got what they were asking for, most expressed the view that they could live with the results. Indeed, no applicant had been eliminated, a possibility some had feared.
How will the gap between grants and requests be made up? Some might wonder if the budgets were inflated from the beginning...
Assuming they weren't, two choices are ahead: First, raising more funds from private donors. Bob Klein was among those offering to help on that front. I don't see a problem at this point in the process, so long as he offers the same help to all applicants.
Another way to make up the shortfall has to do with the way the grants are paid out. Originally the public money from CIRM would have been paid out quarterly over the life of the project.
The committee agreed, to recommend an option of paying an entire grant up front if the recipient agreed to reduce the amount received from CIRM. Presumably the applicant would use its own money in endowment and investment accounts to earn interest to make up the reduction in public funds, while CIRM's money got the project started.
One bright spot in the process: The Facilities Working Group conducted its review of the applications in public, unlike the scientific review. Apparently it's not OK to chide an institution in public for substandard science, but nobody worries about saying it doesn't know how to build a building.
The facilities review was public and far better for it. Transparency builds trust in the system.