With its latest round of awards earlier this month, California's stem cell agency has now handed out $1.5 billion to enterprises linked to its directors.
The figure amounts to 92 percent of the $1.7 billion awarded by the agency. The grants and loans range from $261 million to Stanford University, whose medical school dean, Philip Pizzo, sits on the agency's governing board, to $170,500 to Children's Hospital in Oakland, whose president, Bert Lubin, also is a member of the board.
The University of California, Davis, has received $128 million. Claire Pomeroy, chief executive officer of UC Davis Health System, is another one of the 29 board members.
In all, 27 institutions with past or present representatives on the agency board have received funding.
None of this is illegal. And none of it is likely to change. The situation was created by Proposition 71, the 2004 ballot measure that established the state's $3 billion stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM. The initiative was crafted so that virtually all of the institutions that stood to benefit from the state's largesse had seats at the table where the money is handed out.
The built-in conflicts of interest at CIRM have perturbed some experts in California government, but concerns have also reached into the scientific community. The prestigious journal Nature, in 2008, editorialized against what it called cronyism at CIRM. It said the agency "must fight the tendency of the academic institutions on the board to hoard dollars."
Some California scientists, wary of offending those who control the lifeblood of their research, privately grumble about an "old boys network."
Joe Mathews, co-author of "California Crackup," a study of major issues in state government, said last week: "California ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make public policy. And they are even worse as a method for making scientific policy."
The stem cell agency has a different view. Alan Trounson, president of the San Francisco-based enterprise, said: "There is no evidence that any of CIRM's funding decisions have been driven by conflicts of interest. Indeed, CIRM rigorously enforces its conflict of interest rules at each stage of the funding process to ensure that all decisions are made on the merits of the proposal for funding and not as a result of any conflicts of interest."
Mathews, California editor of Zocalo Public Square, and others point to the creation of the California stem cell agency as an example of abuse of the initiative process by special interests. The 10,000 words in Proposition 71 were written in private by Bay Area real estate investment banker Robert Klein and a handful of associates, who quietly determined the composition of the board. Klein later served six years as the first chairman of the stem cell agency, leaving in June 2011.
Klein later argued publicly that placing medical school deans and university and research institution executives on the board provided the expertise needed to make the decisions about how to spend the research money. However, the makeup of the board also served to win the support of institutions that envisioned the prospect of fresh cash in this case money that the state borrows via bonds.
Mathews described the state's initiative process this way: "Essentially, to win the support of various groups whose money and backing is important to passage of a bond, a sponsor of an initiative bond will set up rules and include money specifically intended for each group. This is a form of pay-to-play. Agree to back the initiative, and you're in."
Bob Stern, who co-wrote the California Political Reform Act, said, "It would have been better had institutions receiving grants not to have had their representatives on the board awarding grants."
Trounson said the board follows "best practices" when it comes to grants and legal conflicts of interest. The agency has worked out an unusual procedure to prevent its directors from violating conflict of interest laws as they vote on applications that seek as much as $20 million each. Before each public session, agency attorneys determine which board members cannot vote on a proposal because of legal conflicts of interest. Applications to be approved are considered as a group. Each board member then votes on the entire group by saying, "Yes, on all those except with which I have a conflict."
No final tally is announced. The public can ferret out the overall vote a month or two later in the minutes of the meeting on the CIRM website (www.cirm.ca.gov). But the minutes do not list individual votes or conflicts of interest.
Domination of the board by academics and nonprofit institutions has led to bitter complaints from business. Less than 7 percent of all awards have gone to for-profit enterprises. Currently, however, the agency is embracing industry more warmly in an effort to commercialize stem cell research, which raises another set of coziness problems. They surfaced in July and again this month.
Klein, who led the stem cell ballot campaign before becoming chairman of the agency, appeared before his old board to lobby on behalf of a $20 million request from StemCells Inc. of Newark. The California firm was founded by the eminent Stanford stem cell scientist Irv Weissman. He sits on StemCells Inc.'s board, and he and his wife hold 273,821 shares of stock in the firm.
Weissman was also an important backer of Proposition 71, working the "billionaire circuit" and raising more than $1 million for the campaign, according to an article in San Francisco magazine.
CIRM's reviewers had rejected StemCells Inc.'s application. After Klein made his pitch in July, the board sent the application back for re-review, an unusual procedure.
When the application returned to the board early this month, reviewers again rejected it. Klein again importuned his former colleagues, and following a closed door session the board approved the award, 7-5.
Eleven members were disqualified from voting because of legal conflicts of interest. It was the first time in the board's eight-year history that it approved an application twice rejected by reviewers.
Mathews said no likelihood exists of changing the board structure at CIRM. He said it is "baked in" by Proposition 71. That's because Klein and company wrote into the initiative a requirement for a super, super-majority vote 70 percent of each house of the Legislature to make any modifications.
Another initiative could be mounted, but that possibility is also exceedingly remote.