By Anne Lowe
A taxpayer-funded agency responsible for the operation of a $6 billion venture into stem cell technology leaves much to be desired in terms of openness and accountability, according to its principal watchdog blogger.
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has a track record of providing limited or confusing information to the public, the California Stem Cell Report said today.
This afternoon's meeting of the directors' Governance Subcommittee is a good example. It is scheduled to meet at 3:30 p.m. PST to consider matters that appear to be of considerable substance. However, not one word of explanation has yet been offered to the public: No justification, no discussion of the pros and cons, no delineation of the costs, no explanation how it might affect the nature of its grants. The public is left in the dark, unable to make an intelligent comment or suggest changes.
All that CIRM offers are cryptic phrases on the Governance agenda that raise more questions than answers. Here is the exact language:
“Consideration of budget allocations and structural priorities. “Consideration of future assignments to and volunteer support by Chair Emeritus. “Consideration of authorization to compensate Patient Advocate Vice-Chairs of Grants Working Group in excess of cap if service as GWG Vice-Chair and Vice-Chair of any other Working Group requires commitment of more than 26 days per year.”
These items have implications that seem to involve how CIRM might spend its remaining $2 billion or some of portion of that amount. The “chair emeritus” item could involve continued work and compensation for outgoing Chairman Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker, possibly involving CIRM's proposed, new multibillion dollar bond measure. The third item is harder to decypher. It certainly involves additional payment to some members of the board of directors. It also may be linked in some fashion to the election or non-election of a patient advocate as vice chair of the board. But no member of the public, which is paying CIRM's freight, is allowed to know.
CIRM has two other directors' meetings coming up soon with important matters on the agenda. One is the Finance Subcommittee this Friday. It will consider complex changes in what Chairman Klein has described as a $500 million biotech loan program. CIRM posted an explanation of the changes only yesterday, three days before the meeting, hardly enough time for biotech companies or the public to evaluate the proposal and make plans to testify. Ironically, CIRM says it is trying to engage industry more completely, but holding back on release of proposed changes in the loan program has the opposite effect. Still a mystery is a second item before the Finance panel. The matter involves CIRM's only source of cash, the bond market. Directors are scheduled to discuss “future implications for CIRM” of the market's behavior – definitely not a lightweight topic.
In just five business days, the entire CIRM board will meet in what is likely to be one of its more important meetings. The Dec. 8 session will discuss the recently completed report by the blue-ribbon external panel. That report was publicly available one week ago, a timely posting, which is much to CIRM's credit. But there is no link to that report on the board agenda, leaving the public to ferret it out. Three routine items on the agenda have background information. The other six significant items have no links to any explanations or justifications, leaving the public or interested parties at a loss.
Last week, the California Stem Cell Report carried an item headlined, “CIRM Management Stumbling at Routine Tasks.” The item said that it is not clear why CIRM cannot or will not provide the background information in a timely fashion, which should be a routine task. The item said,
“The inability of an enterprise to perform routine tasks in a routine fashion is also one sign of serious, embedded management problems that are likely to extend well beyond the routine matters.”
We can add that if routine tasks are not handled routinely, it makes it much more difficult to deal with the truly urgent and extraordinary.