One of the the problems with the California stem cell agency's board is that it is fraught with conflicts of interest. It was, in fact, designed that way in Proposition 71 which voters approved in 2004 with 59 percent of the vote.
Thirteen of the members of the 29-member board by law come from universities and research institutions. And guess who will get most of the $3 billion that the agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), will hand out over the next decade.
Well, those very institutions.
Just how conflicted members are was clear at the board's meeting in Los Angeles this week when it took up the question of awarding a whopping record $271 million to 12 institutions to build stem cell laboratories. It was the largest single round of funding since the institute was founded. Grants ranged from $3.2 million to UC Santa Barbara up to $43.6 million to Stanford. They are the only major awards for bricks and mortar as Prop 71 caps the money available for buildings at $300 million.
Only seven members could vote on the overall grant awards Wednesday -- all the rest had to recuse themselves. They couldn't even talk about the proposals. Besides the members of the board who hold their seats by virtue of their academic roles, several patient advocate members were conflicted because they work for academic institutions that had requests pending. One member is a UC regent.
I'm not the only one that worries about the conflict problem. The prestigious scientific journal Nature editorialized on the topic last week. Under the headline "California against cronyism" the journal warned:
"Several episodes over the past year have highlighted an inherent problem with the CIRM's structure: the board that distributes its funding is stacked with representatives from the universities that benefit most from those disbursements. The CIRM has enacted rules to try to limit the conflicts of interest posed by this arrangement. They don't go far enough."
The editorial concluded:
"For the agency to succeed, patient advocates and other public representatives must fight the tendency of the academic institutions on the board to hoard dollars. As the patient advocates grow into their roles as full partners, and with help from well-intentioned lawmakers such as [ state Sen. Sheila] Kuehl, the CIRM must be coaxed into serving its most important constituency — the taxpayers of California. The roles themselves are not unusual in the world of governance, but here the stakes are exceptionally high. "
Ensuring that CIRM serves the taxpayers of California is exactly what our Stem Cell Oversight and Accountability Project is all about.