Watch the stem cell rules changes

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The state stem cell agency is refining the policies that govern the way $3 billion in grants are administered. One proposed change really had me wondering when I read it.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) just posted a proposed Grants Administration Policy for Academic and Non-Profit Institutions. It will be the subject of an interested parties meeting in San Francisco June 20. The changes are based on two years of grant-making, the agency says. Some are mere linguistic refinements; others are described as substantive.

I started going through the red-line version to track the proposed changes. This one on Page 5 stopped me. The draft proposes eliminating this sentence:

"All research proposals will be peer reviewed so that the most promising scientific proposals are funded."

The reason given:

"This is a substantive change to allow for the possibility of Program Announcements under which the President, rather than the GWG, will review applications."

The GWG is the Grants Working Group. It is made up of 15 scientists from outside California, seven patient advocates and ICOC Chairman Bob Klein.  The scientists score research applications for scientific merit, a process known as peer review. After that, the entire working group discusses the applications and the GWG votes on funding recommendations to the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee. All GWG reviews of research applications are behind closed doors.

I’ve argued that the process would be better if it were more open, but I certainly don’t dispute what the scientists contribute through peer review.  Eliminating that would be a huge change in CIRM policy.

So, I checked with Don Gibbons, CIRM Communications Director and asked what the intent of the new language was.  He responded:

"This will only apply to small conference grants that were discussed at a prior ICOC meeting. These are to help CIRM grantees to bring together like-minded researchers for a symposium, workshop, etc; the bumping of shoulders that moves science forward."

Indeed, such meetings are important, but the proposed language allows for much more than that.  A few thoughts:

— It’s good the draft was posted more than a week before the meeting so people can offer thoughtful comment. That’s exactly how public policy-making should work.

— People directly affected by the proposed GAP need to read it and offer comments. They should go to the meeting. Such folks might be interested to note, for instance, that the policy now explicitly warns of the possibility of criminal action if you break the rules — a good idea, I’d say.

— I’ll be suggesting that instead of striking the sentence about all research proposals being peer reviewed, they add one immediately after it.  It would say, "Proposals to fund conferences, symposia, workshops or similar events will be reviewed by the President."

Say what you mean; mean what you say.

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