San Francisco, CA — California’s stem cell agency board must end the secrecy surrounding the “scientific merit” of building projects competing for $277 million in publicly funded grants, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) said today.
Speaking to the stem cell agency’s oversight board at its meeting, John M. Simpson, FTCR’s Stem Cell Project director, said the two-step process to evaluate what will likely be the single biggest block of grants funded in the $6 billion program must be opened to public scrutiny in its entirety.
“Once again, when given the opportunity to highlight science by putting it in the spotlight and letting people see how it’s done, the stem cell agency wants to close the door,” said Simpson. “Instead of taking the opportunity to foster understanding and build support, they are acting like the public can’t be trusted with science.”
Under the plan presented at the stem cell board meeting, building grants for building research infrastructure would be evaluated under a two-step process. Institutions will apply for one of three types of grants: CIRM Institute, providing $20-$40 million; CIRM Center of Excellence, providing $10-$20 million or CIRM Special Program providing $5-$10 million. As the first step, applications are submitted in secret and judged behind closed doors for scientific merit by a panel of scientists and patient advocates known as the Grants Working Group. Based on the judged scientific merit, the panel recommends the funding level where the institution competes. The institutions are not identified publicly.
Proponents of secrecy of so-called scientific peer review of individual researchers’ grant requests say it must be done behind closed doors lest their applicants’ careers be damaged and they face embarrassment if an application fails. The claim that this could reduce the number of qualified applications.
“But this is not about individuals,” said Simpson. “It’s about big-name universities and $227 million of your money. If they these institutions want our hard-earned tax dollars, they should justify the scientific merit of their plans in public, just as they justify the construction details.”
The second stage of the building grant evaluation judges such things as value, cost and leverage. It is conducted by a panel of real estate experts and patient advocates, called the Facilities Working Group. Its meetings are open to the public and the applicants are identified.
“As it stands now, the two-step process is apparently premised on the notion that it’s unwise to risk embarrassing an institution for its lack of scientific ability, but it’s all right to say it doesn’t know how to construct a building,” said Simpson. “In fact it’s a process that serves neither scientist nor architect, but especially not the public. If, as the agency and board claim, ‘it’s all about the science,’ what possible reason is there to keep the scientific review secret?”
– 30 –
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: www.ConsumerWatchdog.org. Our stem cell information page is located at: www.StemCellWatch.org.