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Stem cell housecleaning

Even as California’s stem cell institute hands out a heartening new round of research grants this week, ethical lapses at the agency show that other items of business are seriously overdue.

One is a blast of public light trained on its grant approval process. That will come as state Controller John Chiang begins an audit of how the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is spending money and avoiding -- or not avoiding -- conflicts of interest. The other will come up next year, when the three-year moratorium on legislative changes to the stem cell initiative ends. Finally, the Legislature will have the power to amend some of the problems written into Proposition 71 that work against its lofty goal of providing $3 billion for stem cell research.

The need for these and other changes became apparent in recent months when John Reed, president of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla and a member of the stem cell agency’s governing board, wrote an appeal to the agency staff asking it to reconsider a rejected application from a researcher affiliated with his institute. The agency’s conflict-of-interest rules clearly forbid board members from trying to influence its business with their own organizations. Worse, Reed was advised to write the letter by Robert Klein, the chairman of the governing board and the go-getter who made Proposition 71 happen. He has been under enough heat from consumer groups to know that conflicts are an inherent danger for the agency, whose 29-member governing board is made up of people who have a direct interest in gaining stem cell funding. Both men say they realize their mistake -- a necessary admission, but not enough to reassure the public. An investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, announced this week, is welcome.

Matters weren’t helped when the stem cell agency eliminated 10 new applications from consideration after officials of various universities -- who also sit on its governing board -- wrote letters supporting their researchers’ applications. The lapses appear to be a matter of confusion more than anything else -- agency rules require a letter of support from an administrator. Some deserving researchers will suffer as a result, but the agency had no real choice. Anyone spending $3 billion in public money has to do it impeccably. When the governing board meets today, it should take this a step further by reprimanding those who flouted the rules -- and changing its policies so the public can know their identities.

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Klein has generally resisted making his agency’s dealings transparent. Even now, it will not reveal the identities of the board members involved in breaking the rules, or their universities.

This is where Chiang’s audit and the Legislature come in. The inquiry should give the public the answers it’s entitled to. And the Legislature could help by reconfiguring the governing board, making it smaller and balancing it with a strong contingent of elected officials and consumer watchdogs. Any change will take a 70% vote, usually a political impossibility. But the problems are nagging enough, and the stakes high enough, that the Legislature must overcome party divisions to create a leaner, more accountable institution.

The agency has entered the exciting phase of funding research that might one day lead to new treatments. Klein and his entrepreneurial style deserve full credit for this, but he must welcome fundamental fixes and put a higher priority on running a public agency as truly public.


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