Stem cell dollars flow;

Published on

But grant process is needlessly shrouded

The Sacramento Bee

California’s stem cell research institute has received little attention of late, and agency officials probably prefer it that way. But while the media have been off covering sex scandals involving mayors and astronauts, the Institute for Regenerative Medicine has been quietly preparing, for the first time in its two-year history, to dispense millions of public dollars for embryonic stem cell research.

This week, on Thursday and Friday, the institute’s oversight committee will meet in San Francisco to decide on roughly $24 million in grants for new stem cell researchers with innovative ideas. While that may be pocket change compared with the $3 billion that voters authorized when they endorsed Proposition 71 in 2004, this initial research funding is historic, and other grants totaling about $100 million will soon follow this year.

Taxpayers curious about how their money will be spent can go to the institute’s Web site — — to see the 30 scientific proposals recommended for funding. The site also includes 200 other projects that didn’t make the cut, with summaries and scientific assessments — some of them surprisingly blunt — about each proposal.

Once the institute’s oversight board makes its final decision this week, it will identify the names and affiliations of scientists receiving grants but not those who didn’t receive funding. Some watchdog groups say the oversight board should disclose all names, but institute leaders say that might embarrass researchers and discourage them from applying for grants. They also note the National Institutes of Health don’t disclose such information.

We have some questions about the stem cell institute’s rationale, but our bigger concern is its procedures for reviewing proposals and selecting projects to fund.

Scientists from outside states do much of this review work, and are not required to publicly disclose their potential conflicts of interest. Undoubtedly, some of those scientists have outside consulting work, or personal relationships with researchers seeking funding, that could affect their grant decisions. Yet under the institute’s shrouded procedures, it is impossible for anyone — including researchers applying for grants — to be assured that grant reviewers are recusing themselves at the proper times.

This lack of public disclosure is the single most glaring problem with the Institute for Regenerative Medicine. While it is momentous that California is now on the leading edge of financing embryonic stem cell research, the institute still hasn’t adopted a transparent procedure for policing potential conflicts. Lawmakers, in this session of the Legislature, need to correct that.

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