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$3 billion California stem cell agency 'make proposals to themselves regarding what should be funded'

10 December 2012
Appeared in BioNews 685

A report has drawn attention to the potential for conflict of interest at the agency that allocates state funds to stem cell research in California, USA.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was set up to distribute the $3 billion earmarked by the state to support stem cell research. Although the report, prepared by experts at the Institute of Medicine, praises much of the organisation's work to date, it says that 'far too many board members represent organisations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding'.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Harold Shapiro, the chair of the 13-person committee behind the report, said: 'They make proposals to themselves, essentially, regarding what should be funded. They cannot exert independent oversight'.

According to the Nature News Blog the report was commissioned by CIRM at a cost of $700,000. The experts acknowledge the agency's achievements in establishing California as an international front-runner in stem cell research but note that research in the field has changed considerably since the agency was created.

The committee advises the agency to reorganise its structure to better respond to these changes and also meet CIRM's own desire to steer funding towards translational and clinical projects.

The changes proposed in the report include the creation of a permanent scientific advisory board to mentor staff on what scientific research should be prioritised and how to establish collaborations with industry. Importantly, the report suggests that board members should mainly be from outside California and so ineligible for the agency's funding. The report also says that the organisation would benefit if the board was less involved in the agency's daily decisions.

Such findings have received support from the CIRM's critics. However, John Simpson, head of the stem cell project at Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organisation in California, adds that 'the report echoes what every independent evaluator has said in the past'.

It is unclear what effect the report will have. The CIRM board chairman, Jonathan Thomas, has said his board members will study the proposed changes in detail in the coming weeks. But even if the CIRM decides to reform, Nature News Blog notes that it 'may not be able to enact recommendations without seeking permission from California's legislature or even voters'.

Independent Review Commends CIRM's Achievements, But Calls on Institute to Revise Governance and Policies to Maintain Credibility and Impact
News From The National Academies (press release) |  6 December 2012
Scientific panel recommends changes to California’s stem cell institute
Nature News Blog |  6 December 2012
Stem cell agency board criticized for conflicts of interest
Los Angeles Times |  7 December 2012
Stem cell agency is urged to restructure
SF Gate |  6 December 2012
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine: Science, Governance, and the Pursuit of Cures
Institute of Medicine of the National Academies |  6 December 2012
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