State Panel Critical Of Stem Cell Institute — Commission Offers Structural Changes

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critique of the state stem cell institute that calls for shrinking its
board and other structural changes drew a strong response from the
group’s chairman, who said the moves would cause “unacceptable” delays
in the group’s work.

After an eight-month study, California’s
Little Hoover Commission yesterday released a 70-page report that said
the stem cell institute’s structure “is not adequate to protect
taxpayers’ interests or serve its own ambitious goals.”

The state
oversight commission found that the size of the 29-member board,
including representatives of institutions that receive stem cell
grants, “fuels concerns that the committee never can be entirely free
of conflict of interest or self-dealing.”

The commission, an
advisory body that recommends ways to improve state government,
undertook its work last fall at the request of two legislators. It
looked at concerns about perceived conflicts of interest, the
transparency of spending decisions and the powers of the two top stem
cell officials.

In broad terms, the review found that the agency
has delivered on its mission of allocating funds — $700 million to date
— to speed stem cell research. The agency, known as the California
Institute for Regenerative Medicine, was authorized to spend $3 billion
in a 2004 ballot initiative.

But it was the specific
recommendations that drew the fire of institute Chairman Robert Klein,
who was a driving force in getting the initiative passed and has been
closely linked with its progress.

In a statement, the institute
said the recommendations were based on an incomplete understanding of
its operation and were so sweeping as to require another ballot
initiative to implement.

“To disrupt and delay the agency’s
critical work for a year, or even six months, because of what the
commission’s staff has called perception issues is unacceptable,” Klein
said. “Let them talk perception to patients who miss out on a
therapeutic breakthrough.”

The Little Hoover Commission’s
recommendations included cutting the board to 15 members, including
four with no ties to institute-funded entities.

The commission
also called for realigning the roles of the president and chairman,
eliminating an arrangement in which some staff members report directly
to Klein. It also called for a succession plan.

“(The institute)
could not exist without the time, effort and personal resources that
Mr. Klein has devoted to it,” the report said. “The personality-driven
structure may have provided the organization initially needed stability
and focus, but it does not portend well for sustainability.”

In a
written response, the institute said its board size is comparable to
that of the University of California regents and includes many members
without ties to grant-receiving institutions. It said the division of
authority between Klein and President Alan Trounson is working well.

one observer who was among those calling for the Little Hoover
Commission review said the institute shouldn’t dismiss the

John Simpson of the Santa Monica group Consumer
Watchdog said many of the recommended changes could be implemented
without delay. One example would be setting up a program to discipline
board members who regularly miss meetings.

“This is a thoughtful
and thorough analysis from a bipartisan group with no ax to grind,”
Simpson said. “(The institute’s) management and board should listen to
its advice.”

Contact the author Thomas Kupper at: (619) 293-1037


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