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Stem cell agency not doing enough to avoid conflict of interest

The California agency's board is wrestling with recommendations for changes in its membership and its authority over the spending of its $3-billion endowment.

January 29, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • A clinical laboratory scientist draws a sample of blood which will be tested for bacterias. At left, the bags have separated the red blood cells from the white blood cells. The stem cells are found in the white blood cells fluid.
A clinical laboratory scientist draws a sample of blood which will be tested… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Compromise, defined as the art of getting part of a loaf when the whole loaf is out of reach, comes in many forms. But surely the strangest of all is what comes of trying to compromise with yourself.

That's what California's stem cell agency is attempting to do. And judging from its record of pioneering new ways of funding and managing scientific research, you can rest assured that the results will be fraught with interest.

What's at issue is how the agency's board wrestles with recommendations for changes in its membership and its authority over the spending of its $3-billion endowment in state bond funds (that's $6 billion, including interest). The recommendations came last month from a panel of the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The stem cell agency, which is formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, paid the academy $700,000 for this exercise in high-level scrutiny.

After 17 months of deliberation, the panel, which was chaired by Harold Shapiro, a former president of Princeton University, concluded that the CIRM board members were saddled with "almost unavoidable conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived." That's because by law, 23 of the 29 members must be representatives of California institutions eligible for CIRM grants or of disease advocacy groups with their own interest in steering money toward their particular concerns.

As a remedy, the panel proposed eliminating some board slots reserved for grant-receiving institutions by Proposition 71, the 2004 initiative that created the agency. The idea was to fill those slots with truly independent members free of any stake in CIRM funding, even indirectly.

The panel also recommended removing the entire board from any role in approving or rejecting individual grant applications. That function should be left wholly up to CIRM's expert scientific reviewers, the panelists said. Given the embarrassing hints of cronyism that have afflicted some of the board's deliberations, that would be a wise move.

No one who has witnessed CIRM in action will be surprised to hear that those most far-reaching recommendations have been rejected — the board gave the same cold shoulder in 2009 to very similar proposals from the state's good-government watchdog, the Little Hoover Commission.

Here's the board's counterproposal, drafted by CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas: The 13 board members who represent funding-eligible institutions, including five UC campuses and other California research institutions, will voluntarily abstain from voting on individual grants in the future.

Yet they'll still participate in all discussions on individual grant applications. As for changing the board's membership, which would require action by the state Legislature or possibly the voters, that's not in the cards at all.

Thomas told me his proposal dealt with even perceived conflicts of interest on the board in such "definitive fashion" that it won't be necessary to bother the Legislature, much less the voters, with such big changes as remaking the board with a majority of independent members. He pointed out, not without some pride, that one board member called his proposed changes "draconian." The board gave them preliminary approval anyway, by a vote of 23 to 0 with one abstention. A final vote will be held in March.

Let's stipulate that Thomas has, in CIRM terms, moved a mountain by jostling the board even this far. Since its inception, the board has set records for arrogance. That's a direct legacy from Proposition 71, which exempted the stem cell program, uniquely among California government bodies, from any practical oversight by the Legislature or elected officials.

Some of the board's veteran critics are astonished that it's gone even to this length in acknowledging the Shapiro panel's recommendations.

"In the past, their tendency has been to circle the wagons and say, 'You're all wrong,'" observes John Simpson, who follows CIRM for "It now seems that they get it that they have a problem."

One reason for CIRM's new flexibility, such as it is, may be its desire to live beyond its bond funding, which will be running out in the next few years. The agency may then have to ask voters for more money. At that point, however, the voters may ask whether its program still makes sense. After all, President George W. Bush's ideological attack on embryonic stem cell research, which inspired California to step up to the plate in the first place, is a historical relic today.

What persists are the conflicts of interest identified by Shapiro's group, and which Proposition 71 wrote into California law. Of CIRM's $1.7 billion in research outlays thus far, more than 90% have gone to institutions with current or past representation on the board. (The calculation comes from David Jensen of the indispensable California Stem Cell Report.)

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