California’s $3 billion state stem agency voted Wednesday to accept in concept proposed changes to reduce conflicts of interest on the agency's governing committee.
The unanimously adopted recommendations will be defined in detail by the agency's staff. They will then go before the committee in March for a vote on whether to enact them.
The changes include voluntary abstention from voting on grants by 13 members of the 29-member Independent Citizens Oversight Committee who represent agency-funded research institutions. That’s intended to prevent these institutions from improperly influencing votes that affect them.
Appeals from those denied funding directly to the oversight committee would also be restricted, to prevent end-runs around the scientific review process. The operational roles of the committee’s chair and vice chair would go to the agency’s president, to separate the committee’s policy-making role from the staff’s administrative functions.
In addition, the recommendations call for more participation from biomedical companies, to hasten transfer of research to clinical use.
Jonathan Thomas, the committee chairman, presented the recommendations at the committee's meeting in Berkeley.
Officially called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the agency is responsible for awarding grants to promote stem cell research and therapies under Proposition 71, passed by California voters in 2004. The San Francisco-based agency has given hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support San Diego stem cell research, including $43 million for a stem cell research headquarters in La Jolla.
Critics, including the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, say the agency's structure creates undue opportunities for committee members to benefit from awarding grants. But some patient advocates and researchers say they fear the recommendations will have the effect of reducing their role.
While oversight committee members are prohibited by Prop. 71 from voting on lobbying for their institutions' own grants, undue influence still occurs, according to the Institute of Medicine, which delivered a CIRM-commissioned report on the agency in December.
The agency had asked for the report in response to criticism that it had become overly cozy with the institutions represented on the committee. The recommendations are a response to show that CIRM is taking the report seriously.
Thomas' recommendations do not encompass all of the report's suggestions; some of those require an amendment to the California Constitution.
No matter what happens, CIRM's role is going to change. Of the $3 billion provided to the agency, about $700 million remains unallocated. CIRM expects to give the last grants from that money in 2017. So what happens after the cash runs out is becoming a pressing issue for CIRM.
Thomas said more than a year ago that he was considering whether to ask California voters for another cash infusion. If that happens, public opinion would be crucial.
Duane Roth, an oversight committee member from San Diego, called the recommendations "compelling," and urged the committee to adopt them to preserve public trust. The details can be worked out at the March meeting, he said.
In a letter to the agency, CIRM-funded stem cell researcher Jeanne Loring of The Scripps Research Institute defended the existing arrangement as fostering closer co-operation and understanding between scientists and the patients they are working to treat.
The agency meets again Thursday in Berkeley.
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