Embryonic stem cells are pictured through a microscope viewfinder in a… (Mauricio Lima / AFP / Getty…)
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the quasi-governmental agency authorized to spend $3 billion in taxpayer money on embryonic stem cell research, deserves praise for commissioning an independent study of its operations by a blue-ribbon committee of the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. But the $700,000 spent on the study — funded by donations — will be wasted if the institute's oversight board fails to heed the committee's criticisms, which echo the findings of the Little Hoover Commission and other groups over the years.
The 29-member board is made up almost entirely of representatives of advocacy groups and research institutions that have a direct interest in how the money is spent. About 90% of grant money so far has gone to institutions with representatives on the board. Ten applications were disqualified in 2007 after a public outcry over inappropriate lobbying by board members on behalf of their institutions. The study said that the majority of the board should be made up of independent members with no stake in the grants.
The board also overrode the advice of its scientific advisors — twice on a single application when it considered a grant for a well-connected company, StemCells Inc. based in Newark, Calif. The board granted the company $20 million after Robert Klein, the driving force behind the passage of Proposition 71, which created and funded the agency in 2004, and its former head, lobbied so intensively for the company that one board member described it as "arm-twisting."
The problem is that Proposition 71 gave the institute so much freedom from government oversight that taxpayers have little say in whether it embraces the necessary reforms. At a board meeting Wednesday, some members appeared defensive about the Institute of Medicine report, though Chairman Jonathan Thomas promised to hold a "public workshop" on the subject.
That's not to say Proposition 71 was a bad idea. The blue-ribbon committee praised agency for quickly building a "high-quality research portfolio" that has helped establish the state as a leading region for stem cell research. But its criticisms of the agency's oversight board were not minor footnotes; Harold Shapiro of Princeton University, who headed the Institute of Medicine panel, said the current conflicts of interest are "very direct and very major" and must be addressed.
The agency has used more than half of its funding and one day will almost certainly want to ask taxpayers for more. It should remember that voters will look for evidence of public accountability as well as respected research.