Build public trust in stem cell institute

Published on

The Sacramento Bee (California)

The following Op-Ed commentary by FTCR’s John M. Simpson was published in the Sacramento Bee on Wednesday, November 1, 2006.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is going to dole out $3 billion in taxpayer money over the next decade to support the state’s stem cell researchers. Everyone concerned claims they want a transparent process to ensure that awards are based on scientific merit, not favoritism and cronyism. Despite mouthing high-minded slogans, the institute’s leaders frequently miss the mark whenever there is a clear opportunity to transact the public’s business in public.

So it was with the announcement on Oct. 16 that 232 researchers representing 36 universities and nonprofit research institutions have applied for 30 Scientific Excellence through Exploration and Development (SEED) grants. The stem cell institute won’t say who the applicants are or what institutions they represent.

In my personal life, I don’t give money to people unless I know who they are, why they want it and what they plan to do with it. It shouldn’t be any different with the taxpayers’ $3 billion. Another opportunity for transparency and to build public faith in the institute’s procedures was missed.

This $24 million in SEED grants will be the first money to be spent on stem cell research since passage of Proposition 71 in November 2004. The landmark taxpayer funded stem cell program has been hobbled by legal challenges brought by opponents of such research, preventing the sale of bonds to finance the program.

California’s program got a new lease on life in July when, in a clearly political move to distance himself from President Bush‘s opposition to stem cell research, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered that $150 million from the state’s general fund be loaned to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The institute is using that money to fund grants intended to jump start human embryonic stem cell research in the state.

“The response demonstrates the keen interest in the field and the pent-up demand for funding for human embryonic stem cell research in California,” said Dr. Arlene Y. Chiu, CIRM‘s director of scientific programs.

The huge response to CIRM‘s request for stem cell research grant proposals underscores once again the need for complete transparency in the award process. All stakeholders — applicants, other scientists, university administrators and the general public — will want to know exactly how a pool of 232 applicants is cut to 30 grantees.

Under the planned review system, a panel of scientists from outside the state will review the applications behind closed doors and rate them for their scientific merit. The reviewers have to tell CIRM about any potential conflicts of interest, but those conflicts are not publicly disclosed. Based on this “peer review,” recommendations for grant awards will be made to the stem cell oversight committee, which will make the awards. Those receiving grants will be identified, but not those who missed the cut.

No useful purpose is served by CIRM‘s penchant for secrecy. It should disclose who applied and where they are from, enabling all concerned to track awards and dispel worries about discrimination.

There’s no need to worry about embarrassing somebody because he didn’t get a grant. CIRM is planning to fund only 12.9 percent of the applicants. Missing this cut is no big deal. Scientists need to develop thicker skins if they want to use public money for their work, and CIRM needs to let the sun shine in.

Bottom line: They want our money. They must tell us who they are and ask for it in public.
About the writer: John M. Simpson is the stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. Reach him at: [email protected] – Web site:

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