The following commentary by John M. Simpson, FTCR’s Stem Cell Policy Director, was published in the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday, August 7, 2007.
California’s stem cell oversight committee meets in San Francisco on Wednesday to consider how to parcel out $227 million to build research facilities across the Golden State. It should be an important step forward for stem cell science, garnering plaudits from all who see the research as offering hope for cures for chronic diseases.
Instead, unless the board changes the draft proposal, grant awards again will be shrouded in unnecessary secrecy, thus continuing to undermine public trust in a process that suffers the stigma of a board designed by law with built-in conflicts of interest.
Last spring the stem cell committee expected the so-called Facilities Working Group to quickly draft criteria for the building awards.
In a tumultuous and contentious session that contributed to then President Zach Hall‘s earlier-than-expected resignation, this advisory panel of real estate experts and patient advocates recommended hearings first. The oversight board in a special conference-call meeting unanimously agreed to the hearing plan, resulting in the two-step process on tomorrow’s agenda.
Institutions will apply for one of three types of grants: CIRM Institute, providing $20 million to $40 million; CIRM Center of Excellence, providing $10 million to $20 million; or CIRM Special Program, providing $5 million to $10 million.
The universities and research institutes pick the category in which to compete and thus the level of funding to seek. 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 actual funding level where the institution competes.
These results go to the oversight committee, which formally decides which applications go forward and at what level of funding. The committee could, acting on the scientists’ recommendations, decide that an application seeking the top tier had scientific merit only in the lowest tier.
Or it could decide that there was no scientific merit at all and kill the project.
After the committee makes its decision based on the scientists’ secret sorting, the universities’ and research institutes’ identities become public. Part two of the application, now a public document, goes to the panel of real estate experts who vet the project for such things as value, cost and leverage. They do their evaluation in public.
Repeatedly stem cell agency and board members say, “It’s all about the science.” So, what reason is there to keep the scientific review secret? Some say that peer review of individual researchers must be behind closed doors lest their careers be damaged and they face embarrassment if an application fails. They fear scientists’ egos are so fragile that the risk of public rejection would scare good applicants away.
But this is not about individuals. It’s about big-name universities and $227 million of your money. If they want our hard-earned tax dollars, they should justify the scientific merit of their plans in public, just as they justify the construction details.
Putting scientific review on a pedestal behind closed doors does nothing to help the public’s understanding of, and therefore faith in, the process. Looming over it all is the legally mandated, conflicted structure of the board. Virtually all of the university and research institutes represented on the board will seek money for buildings. It behooves members in their own best interest to demonstrate pure motives by keeping the process completely transparent.
The stem cell committee should direct that scientific review of building projects be handled like the facilities review — in public. 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 decent building. That approach serves neither scientist nor architect, but especially not the public.