Watchdog groups: Stem cell proposals need transparency

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As the state’s new stem cell agency begins reviewing its first set of research grant proposals, consumer watchdog groups continue to say the process needs more transparency.

Voters established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in 2004 with the passage of Proposition 71, which provided $3 billion for stem cell research.

Although the funding is on hold while the institute defends itself against lawsuits challenging its constitutionality, the state recently provided a $150 million loan to begin funding research.

This week, a stem cell agency committee is in closed-door sessions reviewing 232 proposals from scientists at 36 nonprofit institutions to decide which will receive the first round of research grants, amounting to $24 million.

In February, the stem cell agency is expected to announce the grant recipients, but who applied will remain confidential. John Simpson, an official with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, called for a more transparent system during a public comment period before the panel retreated into closed session.

The CIRM should follow the lead of Connecticut’s stem cell agency, Simpson said, which, due to the state’s public information laws, has disclosed applicants’ identities and affiliations. Connecticut’s Department of Public Health funds the agency with $100 million from the state’s general fund.

“If you want to track, and make sure, that an old boys’ network is not at work or political pressures, or academic institutions trading off with each other, one of the most important things to know to ensure equity or diversity in the grant recipients is who didn’t get a grant,” Simpson said.

California’s stem cell grant procedures are the same as those used by the National Institutes of Health, countered CIRM spokesman Dale Carlson, who said confidentiality ensures that scientific interest directs the agency’s decisions.

“Because the proposals that are funded, are funded on the basis of merit and not politics, the process encourages people to come in with innovating and sometimes radical ideas, without fear of having their professional reputation tarnished,” Carlson said.

beslinger@examiner.com

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