Ten grant applications have been eliminated from consideration for new faculty awards from the California Institute of Medicine because the faculty were endorsed by CIRM board members. But while board members might learn something from the public flap and withholding of potential research funds, the scientists themselves are victims of members’ poor judgment.
CIRM’s board consists of several heads of prominent California research organizations, and the now-rejected grants required letters from applicant’s institutions stating that the institution would support new faculty members with resources like laboratory space, supplies, and mentorship. But in ten cases, these support letters were signed by institution heads who are also members of CIRM’s Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee. Though the ICOC relies on scientific review panels to help decide on individual grants, it does oversee how funds are distributed. Board members must excuse themselves when discussing and voting on issues that represent conflicts of interest, but it’s unclear whether signing these letters about eligibility constituted a conflict. (A previous, more prominent flap was also about eligibility. CIRM board member and Burnham Institute president John Reed wrote a letter stating that a grant applicant affiliated with his institution was eligible to receive funds after CIRM staff decided that he was not. That prohibited communication is being investigated formally.
CIRM officials say they welcome investigations. They are making much of the fact that CIRM is breaking new ground and say they are still learning how to deal with public scrutiny and with juggling their dual roles to avoid conflict of interest. They’ve got a point: CIRM is the first state entity to fund scientific research through public bonds, as far as I know. And the board members are in a crazy situation. ( Read more about the unusual organizational structure here.) The legislation that enacted CIRM requires that 5 board members are executives from a University of California with a medical school and that 4 are executives from California research institutes. Those people achieved their positions by demonstrating that they could look after the interest of their research organizations. But because they oversee the biggest funder of stem-cell research, they are supposed to divorce themselves from any benefit their institutes could derive from the funds. Even the most savvy officials could slip up in such a situation, and CIRM officials like to proclaim that they are treading new, boggy ground. Incoming CIRM head Alan Trounson has been criticized in Australia for poorly considered public comments as well.
Let’s hope that experience is a good teacher. CIRM officials are being punished for their missteps, since their institutions are losing funds. The move to reject the applications has been praised by a press release from the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, “It’s simple: stem cell board members cannot take part in any way in grants to their institutions,” said John M. Simpson, FTCR’s Stem Cell Project Director. “The board is not some old-boys’ club for the benefit of the state’s universities. They are public officials and stewards of the public interest. Perhaps a few of these deans need to enroll in Ethics 101 at their universities and get the basics down.” The blog California Stem Cell Report has written about it extensively. CIRM has not issued a press release on the topic yet. When deciding not to fund the grant originally won by the Burnham Institute, CIRM decided not to announce the decision to avoid embarrassing the Institute. But such disclosures will be part of what it takes to keep the public’s trust.