Public interest group calls stem cell institute proposals "inadequate"
Center for Genetics and Society says working groups must disclose personal financial interests
Public interest critics of the California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine (CIRM) today said the proposed set of what CIRM calls
"enhanced" conflict of interest standards represent
progress, but remain inadequate. The CIRM's governing board
will consider these proposed policies at its July 12 meeting
"We recognize the positive progress made by the board
on governance issues," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate
executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. "But
these proposals still fall short of basic democratic principles
of good and open governance. Both the conflict of interest and
open meetings policies up for consideration by the Institute's
board remain inadequate."
CIRM, which is to distribute $3 billion to fund stem cell research,
remains mired in controversy. Proposition 71, which established
the Institute, exempted it from many of California's key open
meetings and conflict of interest laws.
The proposed policies are part of a set of compromises worked
out among CIRM leadership and several state legislators. Legislative
action on CIRM has been spearheaded by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, a
key backer of Proposition 71 who began sharply criticizing CIRM
immediately after the election and introduced a package of reforms
to address some of the measure's flaws. After negotiations in
June, Sen. Ortiz offered to table a proposed constitutional
amendment if CIRM's board adopts strong policies.
The proposed policies would allow members of CIRM's "working
groups" to report their financial interests only to CIRM,
rather than disclosing them publicly. The working groups are
key bodies that will review grant requests and set research
standards, among other functions. Research
by the Sacramento Bee reported this past weekend
indicate that some members of the Grant Funding Working Group
have personal financial interests in companies that conduct,
or are financially connected to, stem cell research.
"Californians deserve transparent and accountable governance,"
said Jesse Reynolds, project director for biotechnology accountability
at the Center. "The personal financial interests of those
who make recommendations and decisions about the fate of billions
of public dollars should be publicly disclosed. This week's
revelations by the Sacramento Bee only make that more
The proposed policies also address the working groups' rules
for open meetings and public records. Terry Francke of Californians
Aware, the leading advocacy organization for open state governance,
said in a July 11 letter to CIRM's board, "Proposition
71 got off on the wrong foot by designing secrecy for the process
in which its policies and choices are incubated. While the prospect
of a corrective constitutional amendment has forced certain
`enhancements,' too many are riddled with ambiguity at best,
and at worst, unjustified in terms of Proposition 59's requirement
that interests to be protected and the need for the protection
be identified whenever rules are made that limit access to public
meetings or records."
Proposition 59, "Public Records, Open Meetings,"
was passed by more than 83% of California voters in November
2004. It established a constitutional right of access to government
meetings and records.
Public interest critics, state legislators, and other commentators
have also raised questions about the affordability of any eventual
treatments, protection of research subjects and women who may
provide eggs for research, financial returns on the large public
investment, effective controls to prevent misuse of cloned embryos,
operational irregularities, and other matters.
"We are encouraged that California's elected officials
seem inclined to keep a close eye on CIRM," said Darnovsky.
"We hope that Sen. Ortiz and others will maintain pressure
on the institute. After all, this is a public agency funded
by the people of California."