Yet More Meddling at CIRM

Posted by Jesse Reynolds December 7, 2007
Biopolitical Times

New revelations of improper interference in grant applications by board members of the California stem cell agency surfaced today. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that four members of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) board, who are also deans of medical schools in the state, have written letters of support for recent grant applications from researchers at their own institutions. This appears to violate Proposition 71, which prohibits board members from trying to influence applications from their institutions.

Coupled with recent news that one such inherently-conflicted board member tried to salvage a rejected grant to his institution - at the suggestion of board chair and Proposition 71 author Robert Klein - this suggests a board culture that does not take conflicts of interest seriously. The picture seems even sharper in light of CIRM board members' personal financial interests in companies that are invested in stem cell research, documented in a CGS report in April 2005.

The current situation developed after applicants for CIRM grants were instructed to obtain letters of support from their department chairs or deans, without mentioning that conflict-of-interest considerations would rule out letters from deans who are also CIRM board members. But these board members, who are executives at heavyweight institutions - UCSF, UCLA, UCS­D, and USC - should know better. It would have been a simple matter for them to refer the applicants to assistant deans or department chairs.

Both in this case and in the one involving Robert Klein and board member John Reed, CIRM staff should be praised for catching and rejecting the inappropriate interference.

Credit or blame aside, this meddling is symptomatic of the deep flaws of Proposition 71, which created CIRM. It mandates that the CIRM board be dominated by high-ranking representatives of the institutions vying to maximize their slice of the public funding pie. These developments should stimulate the California legislature to alter the law to reform the board structure, and more.­