Stem cell institute misses chance to build support

Published on

The Oakland Tribune

John M. Simpson ([email protected]) is the stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. He wrote this Op-Ed commentary for the Oakland Tribune, published Monday, January 8th, 2007.

Aso-called “working group” of out-of-state scientists and patient advocate members of California’s stem cell oversight committee goes behind closed doors in San Francisco for three days starting today to decide who they think should get $80 million in taxpayer funds for stem cell research over the next four years.

In the next decade the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) plans to dole out $3 billion in taxpayer money to support the state’s stem cell researchers.

Everyone concerned claims they want a transparent process to ensure that awards are based on scientific merit, not favoritism and cronyism. Despite mouthing high-minded slogans, the institute’s leaders too frequently miss the mark whenever there is a clear opportunity to build faith in its processes by being completely open.

In California we don’t know who applied for the grants or their affiliations. Our stem cell institute need only look to Connecticut where applicants’ names and pertinent details are public record for a model of how to conduct the public’s business.

Fortunately at least one California scientist understands the importance of a completely transparent process when dealing with public funds. Connecticut’s stem cell peer review committee — the equivalent of California’s grants working group ‘ is chaired by Dr. Leslie P. Weiner, professor of neurology at the University of Southern California‘s Keck School of Medicine.

The California stem cell institute won’t identify the 70 researchers from 23 unidentified institutions vying for 25 grants under the Comprehensive Research Grants program.

In my personal life, I don’t give money to people unless I know who they are, why they want it and what they plan to do with it. It shouldn’t be any different with the taxpayers’ $3 billion. Another opportunity for transparency and to build public faith in the institute’s procedures is being squandered.

The huge response to CIRM‘s request for stem cell research grant proposals underscores once again the need for complete transparency in the award process. All stakeholders — applicants, other scientists, university administrators and the general public — will want to know exactly how each pool of applicants is cut to a much smaller number of grantees.

Under CIRM‘s system, the panel of scientists from outside the state will review the applications behind closed doors and rate them for their scientific merit. Based on this “peer review” and input from the “disease advocates” on the panel, recommendations for grant awards will be made to the full stem cell oversight committee, which will make the awards. Those ultimately receiving grants will be identified, but not those who missed the cut.

Compare this to Connecticut, where the stem cell advisory committee awarded $19.78 million to 21 grantees from a pool of 70 applicants. The names and affiliations of the applicants were public record. At the public meeting where the grants were discussed and made, information available included the name of the researcher, an abstract of the proposal, the “scientific score,” a synopsis of the peer reviewers’ comments and the researcher’s affiliation. Everyone knows who got the money, who didn’t and understands why.

No useful purpose is served by CIRM‘s penchant for secrecy. It should disclose who applied and their affiliation, enabling all concerned to track awards and dispel worries about favoritism. Knowing who applied for money and didn’t get it can be more revealing sometimes than knowing who did.

Scientists need to develop thicker skins if they want to use public money for their work, and CIRM needs to let the sun shine in. Bottom line: They want our money. They must tell us who they are and ask for it in public.

Consumer Watchdog
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