California stem cell agency to adopt oversight improvements

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California’s public stem cell agency has announced plans to adopt significant administrative changes recommended nearly eight weeks ago by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). 

The IOM’s report focused on ensuring independent oversight, enhancing the credibility of the scientific review process and eliminating widely perceived financial conflicts of interest at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

CIRM was created by 2004's voter-approved Proposition 71 and is funded by $3 billion in taxpayer dollars. 

CIRM requested the IOM review. The review it got back applauded the stem cell agency's mission and achievements, but also issued 10 non-binding recommendations to improve the agency’s operations and long-term sustainability.

CIRM adopts changes

In response to the IOM recommendations, CIRM’s Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC) -  which acts as the agency’s governing board -  issued a list of proposed changes it plans to adopt in March.  

Board members from universities and other institutions eligible for CIRM funding must now abstain from voting on grant requests; the agency will create a scientific advisory board to help with funding priorities; and the science staff will play a greater role in determining whether appeals of rejected applications warrant further review.

“These are big potential changes, and important ones,” Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the governing board said in a press release that outlined the board’s recommendations.  “We are proposing them to address the concerns of the IOM, and to demonstrate how seriously we take the recommendations detailed in their report.”

"First step forward"

The CIRM proposals were characterized as “thoughtful” and “an important first step forward” by Harold Shapiro, president of economics and public policy at Princeton University who led the IOM panel that reviewed the agency.

“I’m encouraged by this,” Shapiro told KPCC. “Presumably in the future they’ll take other steps. But these are steps they could take without any legislative approval and …I think it does respond in a pretty significant way to the spirit of the report.”

But Shapiro expressed concern that the agency is making only “small moves” to address a recommendation that CIRM separate operations from oversight. Currently, the ICOC functions “both as an executor and as an overseer—competing duties that compromise the ICOC’s critical role of providing independent oversight and strategic direction,” according to the December IOM report. 

“But  I do understand… that would be a move that they would have to take over time so we’ll have to wait and see,” Shapiro said.

Thomas agreed and said that while CIRMs recommendations more clearly define the roles of chairman and president, more refinements will be likely over time.

CIRM is seeking public comment on the recommendations before it votes on them at its March 19 board meeting. Comment can be sent to CIRM public information officer, Kevin McCormack: KMcCormack@cirm.ca.gov.

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