California’s Stem Cell Agency: Not a Private Science Club
By John M. Simpson
the Consumer Watchdog
Back in February California's stem cell agency made a big deal of hosting a meeting of the International Stem Cell Forum. Chairman Bob Klein and his colleagues made a point of saying at every opportunity how this demonstrated California's leading role in the worldwide stem cell research community.
That's probably true, but once again stem cell agency leaders acted like they think the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is a private club, not a public agency. Maybe they were in awe of the scientific style of the Brits who run the ISCF.
At the time of the meeting CIRM declined to say how many of your dollars were being spent to host it. Much worse, the sessions were closed to the public.
Yesterday afternoon Don Gibbons, CIRM chief communications officer, finally told David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report, that the agency spent $25,912 hosting the two-day event in San Francisco.
At the time of the meeting a CIRM spokeswoman would -- or could -- only say the agency was "paying for the meeting room at the hotel where the meeting is taking place as well as the audio visual set up and possibly some things like copies. We are also paying for 2 dinners (but not alcohol)."
The amount spent actually sounds more or less reasonable, but why CIRM couldn't even provide an estimate last month mystifies me.
What really is of major concern, though, is the fact that these meetings were closed. Supposedly the reason for that is that the ISCF is administered by the UK's Medical Research Council. The ISCF chairman is Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council (UK). Apparently the scientists on the other side of the Pond just assume the rabble ought not be let in behind the closed doors of their scientific clubs when meeting.
CIRM did call a late afternoon telephonic news conference -- about the worst time for any working reporter on a deadline -- only to delay the announced start by half an hour. Then when reporters called in at the newly appointed time, they were kept on hold for at least 20 more minutes.
I guess if you've got a "Sir" in front of you name you can get away with that sort of nonsense. The ISCF actually issued a significant statement:
"The ISCF supports stem cell research using both human embryonic and adult stem cells. The Forum also recognizes that the demonstration of human induced Pluripotent (iPS) cells opens up an exciting area of stem cell research. The technology is at a very early stage however and many questions remained unanswered such as the functional relationship of iPS cells to human embryonic stem cells, both of which are important to moving the entire field of stem cell research toward application and clinical therapies."
The general public, stem cell researchers and advocates would have been far better served had they been able to see how and why that statement was crafted.
Let's invite Sir Leszek and the gang back again, but let's make sure it's to an open meeting next time. In case anybody forgot, our country was founded on the notion that the Brits didn't have it exactly right when it came to governance.
Oh, and about those drinks that CIRM won't spring for. Next time around -- when it's a public meeting -- it will be my shout for pints at the nearest pub.
John M. Simpson writes on many consumer and public policy issues for the Consumer Watchdog, formerly the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. He is a veteran journalist who held top editing positions at international, national and community newspapers. Most recently he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. He was previously deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition.