The California stem cell agency Friday holds its second meeting aimed at the biotech industry to discuss revisions in its strategic plan. One proposal is a terrible idea.
In Section 2 "Collaborating with Industry" the plan envisions close cooperation with the biotech industry or else, it says, the California Institute For Regenerative Medicine‘s "ability to accomplish its mission will be jeorpardized."
Sure, you don’t get cures without stem cell companies being involved. But when you’re doling out $3 billion in public money you’ve got to avoid conflicts of interest. You need a level playing field for all comers. You can’t favor one company over another.
Here’s what concerns me: CIRM’s plan wants to "reach out to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry to better understand its needs and encourage participation in CIRM programs."
To do this CIRM wants to "Establish a ‘Biotech Advisory Group’ comprised of representatives from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector to advise CIRM on industry trends and needs and to help evaluate CIRM’s interactions with this sector."
This is a horrible idea, fraught with pitfalls. Who picks the members? What would be the criteria for selection? Will the meetings be public? Will these advisors also be applying for grants?
CIRM has a board that is supposed to provide oversight, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC). Four members of that committee who are appointed by elected officials hold their seats because they are supposed to represent the life sciences industry. Don’t CIRM’s leaders talk to them?
If CIRM wants to have a public meeting targeted at industry executives, like Friday afternoon’s session, that’s great. Concerned biotech executives can also come to ICOC meetings and committee meetings and comment on policy. Some have. Many have not.
Encouraging participation in ICOC and subcommittee meetings is fine. Creating an industry special interest group to whisper in the ears of CIRM executives is just wrong-headed. What do you say to biotech companies not on the panel? Will there be an advisory group from academia, another from patient advocates and another advisory group from the public?
But that’s exactly what the ICOC and its committees are supposed to do with their public meetings. Selecting some industry representatives and giving them special treatment and access to CIRM’s leadership is simply wrong.