Stem cell board fails to muster quorum, skips cash request

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California’s stem cell board, the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee (ICOC), was flummoxed again on Tuesday by its super majority requirement. The 29-member board failed to muster a quorum for a special telephonic meeting.

Only 15 members phoned in; a quorum is 19.

One item was on the agenda: "Consideration of Pre-Application Review Process for Basic Biology RFA." It turns out that the board didn’t need to vote on the issue based on board action at the regular meeting earlier this month. The stem cell agency’s staff had to report on the criteria they’ll use in the pre-review process. They did and it’s outlined here.

Chairman Bob Klein had also wanted to vote on a $400,000 grant to help fund the International Society for Stem Cell Research in San Francisco in 2010.  The item was posted after the agenda was released, so it needed a vote before it could even be discussed — impossible without a quorum. I earlier said the request was for $420,000. California Institute for Regenerative Medicine spokesman Don Gibbons points out it’s actually only $400K, but the CIRM software automatically tacks on a 5% "overhead" on its conference funding request form. The ISSCR has done a terrible job of justifying its request. For instance they want $250K for "conference services, publicity and and publication." What’s that supposed to mean? Until there’s a decent budget, there can be no money. And given California’s economic condition there shouldn’t be a conference grant anyway.

The pre-application grant review process is intended to get more research ideas considered, while not overtaxing the 15 out-of-state scientists serving on a grant review group. Until now the number of applications has been kept manageable by limiting the number allowed from each organization. The fear is that good ideas are not making past "institutional gatekeepers" who know that their organization has a limit on applications.

The pre-application review calls for a briefer description of the research proposal. Out-of-state scientists, working with stem cell agency scientific staff, will review those proposals, then 40 to 60 researchers will be invited by the scientific staff to submit full applications which will go though the usual CIRM peer review process.

ICOC members have expressed concerns that the pre-review system will open the staff up to charges of bias. At the last ICOC meeting the board voted to try the proposal on an experimental basis, if the staff outlined the criteria that would be used and how the experiment would be assessed. Given the current context, I supported the experiment.

However, I’ve got a simple solution: Just open the whole process up to the public. It’s our $3 billion that’s being handed out. If you want our money, you ought to be willing to ask for it in public. Nothing builds more trust in a review process than having it completely transparent.

And on the matter of the lack of a quorum: A tip of the hat to the 15 ICOC members who found time to participate in Tuesday’s session during the busy holiday season. As for the other 14, I’ll follow my mother’s sage advice: "If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all." I can’t say anything at all about them…

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