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Rocky Road to Redemption

Can a state-funded research institute regain its footing in the wake of grant scandals and resignations?

By | February 12, 2013

Texas State Capital BuildingFLICKR, Ed SchipulSince awarding an $18 million research grant without any scientific peer review last March—among other shocking events revealed last year—investigations and dramatic resignations have mired the $3 billion, state-funded Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Now, amid results of a state audit, draft legislation for new regulations, and a band of fresh executives, CPRIT looks to reinstate its suspended grant application process, and—more importantly—rebuild its lofty reputation. But some researchers and legislatures have their doubts that the institute will recover from this high-profile scandal.

“We want to send a strong and clear message to the new CPRIT leadership that we expect them to improve accountability and follow the rules,” Representative Jim Keffer (R) of Eastland, Texas, said in a press release announcing new legislation to buttress regulations for CPRIT’s management and grant review process. Introduced last week (February 5) by Keffer and Texas State Senator Jane Nelson (R), the legislation aims to clarify conflict-of-interest rules, codify pre-existing rules, and restructure governance, making transparency and accountability a priority. “Texans voted overwhelmingly to create this institute to find scientific breakthroughs in the prevention of cancer and cures for cancer,” said Keffer, who wrote the 2007 legislation to establish the institute. “We are counting on CPRIT leaders to get the job done right.”

CPRIT’s troubles became public last May when then-Chief Scientific Officer Alfred Gilman, a Nobel Laureate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, announced his resignation in protest to an $18 million incubator grant awarded to the University of Texas (UT) MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston without any scientific peer review. Accusations of bias and favoritism within CPRIT’s politically appointed oversight committee followed, and by October all eight members of the scientific review council—along with many of CPRIT’s 100 scientific reviewers—also resigned. In December, following a recommendation by Governor Rick Perry, CPRIT announced that it would halt its grant application process until CPRIT leaders “fully address the concerns that have been raised.”

A state audit, released last month (January 28), found that CPRIT awarded a total of $56.3 million in grant awards without proper review, while delaying grant awards to applications that earned high scores by reviewers. The audit, which included 42 recommendations for how to improve the institute, also discovered improperly managed grants and identified undisclosed conflicts of interest for council members assessing commercial opportunities for CPRIT-funded research discoveries.

CPRIT’s newly appointed interim executive director, Wayne Roberts, responded in a public letter that CPRIT will comply with all of the recommendations, but claimed that the audit’s criticisms were reflective of the institute only “in the early stages of its development”—which, it adds, is common among new agencies. Roberts also noted that despite the serious missteps, only a handful of CPRIT’s 3,000 grant reviews and 499 funding awards in its 4-year history were affected.  

Indeed, the newly minted chief scientific officer, Margaret Kripke—a former faculty member and administrator of the MD Anderson Cancer Center—echoed the idea by suggesting that funding schedules may have contributed to the inappropriate allocation of grants. “I think one of the difficulties was trying to spend a very large amount of money in a short amount of time,” Kripke told The Scientist, adding that gradual staging of the funding process could improve grant management.

But some scientists who resigned amid the investigations say problems stem from hidden agendas within the oversight committee and a general lack of respect for scientific peer review, which can’t be easily fixed and will make it difficult to recruit replacement reviewers of equal caliber.

In an opinion piece published in November in BMJ, Charles Sherr, a former CPRIT review council member and researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, wrote of the general belief within the grant oversight committee that “CPRIT funds had not been equally distributed to institutions in their geographical areas, acting in this respect like congressmen who direct ‘pork’ to their districts.”

Concern over the committee’s priorities flared in October when the chairman, James Mansour, inadvertently sent an email meant for his executive staff to a scientific reviewer, in which he responded to the resignation of high-profile scientists by stating that it’s “[b]etter to get them all out of the way now. Gives us the prime opportunity to announce a new regime. . . . Gilman is gone and so is his influence. There will be a number of Texas Institutions who will be ecstatic including TAM, Methodist, TTU and others.”

Still, despite the political drama, others are optimistic that CPRIT can recover, including Nobel Laureate and former review council member Phillip Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “[CPRIT] had an excellent [review panel] and I suspect that many people who were involved with that would be pleased to get engaged again,” Sharp told The Scientist. While he was frustrated by last year’s events, Sharp spoke warmly of his time working with CPRIT (though he noted that he wouldn’t consider rejoining as a reviewer due to time constraints from other professional obligations).

The problems at CPRIT are not unique, Sharp points out. “If [decision making] is allowed to go in the backroom,” he said, “you will get political influence and inefficiency, and sometimes even criminal use of funds.”

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