California stem cell agency bars public from meeting on eggs

Posted by Jesse Reynolds June 23, 2010
Biopolitical Times
The Center for Genetics and Society – along with other public-interest groups and several state legislators – have long criticized the state initiative that established California's $3 billion stem cell research agency for its exceptions to the state's open meeting laws. After the passage of Proposition 71, the new agency agreed under pressure to open the doors to the meetings of its three advisory groups. However, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is apparently now barring the public from another set of advisory meetings, its scientific workshops.

Tina Stevens and Diane Beeson, of San Francisco State University and California State University East Bay, respectively, tried to attend the CIRM / Medical Research Council Human workshop on "Procurement of Human Oocytes: What has been the Experience to Date?" which was part of a longer day of workshops. They were prohibited from entering.

David Jensen posted both their account and CIRM's response at his indispensable California Stem Cell Report. The agency's spokesperson claims that all of its scientific workshops are closed to the public, and further cites intellectual property concerns. However, the workshops are not always closed. For example, a 2006 CIRM / Institute of Medicine workshop on "Assessing the Medical Risks of Human Oocyte Donation for Stem Cell Research" was open.

Jensen's take is critical of CIRM:
CIRM says the meeting was aimed at securing “information for critical decisions” about how it is going to spend taxpayers' money. That subject would certainly seem to be a matter of considerable public interest and justify a public need to know. As for asking for identification, that appears to be a clear violation of state law. The state attorney general's guide to California's open meeting law says agencies covered by the act are barred from imposing “ANY CONDITIONS” on attendance at a meeting.

As for the need to protect intellectual property, proprietary or unpublished information, that claim is simply poppycock. CIRM has not disclosed how many persons were in the closed-door meeting, but it is impossible to keep information secret when even more than a handful of persons is present, and most likely not even then.

Prop. 71, approved by 59 percent of voters in 2004, exempted CIRM from some aspects of the state's sunshine laws. It is not clear whether those exemptions apply in this case. But the state Constitution (section three) was also changed by voters in 2004 to guarantee the right of the public to access. That change was approved by a much larger vote (89 percent) than Prop. 71. It is our understanding that if conflicts exist in such cases, the measure with the larger vote takes precedence.

Jensen is on track. Due to Propositions 71’s administrative and financial isolation of the CIRM, the agency remains lavishly funded while the rest of the state government makes severe cuts. Despite this isolation, the CIRM is a public agency, and the public has a right to attend such influential deliberations.