Expose state's stem cell funding to sunlight

May 15, 2007|By John M. Simpson

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Maryland's Stem Cell Commission retreats behind closed doors today for the second time in less than a month to pick from among 85 requests totaling $81 million and award $14.5 million in taxpayer money for stem cell research.

Next fiscal year the commission is expected to dole out $23 million in grants, making it even more imperative that the state finds a way to do the public's business in public.

All concerned claim they want to ensure that awards are based on scientific merit, not favoritism and cronyism. Under Maryland law, the commission is following a procedure patterned after that used by the National Institutes of Health in making research grants. But just because the NIH does something doesn't mean it is the best approach.

Stem cell research is such a potentially contentious field, so fraught with political minefields, that it is imperative the public funding process be completely transparent. For the long-term benefit of the research, every opportunity to build public faith in the Maryland commission's procedures must be taken.

And there is definitely a better way than what Maryland has opted to use. Sadly, it's not what we do in my state of California's $6 billion stem cell program. Rather, Maryland should look closer to home for a model: the stem cell program in Connecticut.

As an average resident of Maryland, you don't know who applied for these grants - or their affiliations. In Connecticut, applicants' names and pertinent details are part of the public record. The awards are discussed and granted in an open meeting.

By contrast, here's what is on the public record about the Maryland program: There were 41 applications for investigator-initiated research grants worth up to $500,000 a year for three years; still pending are 44 applications for exploratory research grants for $100,000 a year for two years.

A panel of scientists from out of state has reviewed the applications and scored them for scientific merit - so-called "peer review." Those rankings play a significant role in the commission's closed-door decisions.

After decisions are made in secret, the public will be told who got how much and for what. Any proprietary details of proposed research will be withheld.

California's program follows a middle path. A synopsis of the application and the scientific peer review is public, and the awards are made at an open meeting. However, the applications are identified only by number, leaving out names and affiliations.

In my personal life, I don't give money to people unless I know who they are, why they want it and what they plan to do with it. It shouldn't be any different with Maryland taxpayers' $14.5 million. A major opportunity for transparency and building public faith in the Stem Cell Commission's procedures is being squandered.

The relatively large response to Maryland's request for stem cell research grant proposals underscores once again the need for complete transparency. All stakeholders - applicants, other scientists, university administrators and the general public - will want to know exactly how and why each pool of applicants is cut to a much smaller number of grantees.

Compare Maryland's method with Connecticut's, where the stem cell committee awarded $19.78 million to 21 grantees from a pool of 70 applicants. At the public meeting where the grants were discussed and made, information available included the name of the researcher, an abstract of the proposal, the "scientific score," a synopsis of the peer reviewers' comments and the researcher's affiliation. Everyone knows who got money, who didn't and why.

No useful purpose is served by Maryland's penchant for secrecy, except possibly protecting a researcher's bruised ego. Full disclosure would allow all concerned to track awards and dispel worries about favoritism. Knowing who didn't get money can be more revealing sometimes than knowing who did.

Bottom line: If you want the taxpayers' money, say who you are and ask for it in public.

John M. Simpson is the stem cell project director for the nonpartisan, nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a consumer advocacy organization. His e-mail is john@consumerwatchdog.org.

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