Major problems plague the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. For months, reports have highlighted the awarding of grants without independent review and have raised questions about conflicts of interest. Its credibility badly damaged, the agency’s grant-making ability has been put on hold pending legislative reforms.
A 99-page state audit released recently again bruises CPRIT, as the cancer-fighting agency is known, and reinforces the need for change. With change should come a plan to revisit the agency’s performance during the next legislative session in 2015.
State Auditor John Keel found that CPRIT failed to follow agency and state rules about the amount of matching funds required of an applicant before a grant can be given; kept inadequate records about many of its decisions, if records could be found at all; and ignored business and professional relationships between agency leaders and grant recipients that, if not improper, at least created a perception of bias.
Ethical questions surround the agency approved by Texas voters six years ago to spend $3 billion over 10 years on research, preventive and commercial efforts to fight cancer. The audit found, for example, that discussions between some members of CPRIT’s 11-member oversight committee, which makes final grant decisions, and former executive director Bill Gimson “may have influenced the executive director’s grant recommendations.” Gimson resigned in December.
An $11 million grant given Peloton Therapeutics, a Dallas biotech startup, without an independent review has been the subject of previous reporting, as has the approval of $20 million for a business incubator project jointly developed by the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Rice University.
The lack of scientific review for the M.D. Anderson grant, which the cancer center has since withdrawn, prompted the agency’s chief scientist, Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, to announce his resignation in May. Dozens of other scientists who helped CPRIT review the scientific merit of grant applications followed Gilman’s exit, concerned that politics were undermining scientific considerations.
The state audit recommends numerous legislative changes that might help restore confidence in CPRIT. Lawmakers should heed the recommendations.
We previously have suggested the Legislature should mandate that CPRIT release details about its grant decisions and change rules regarding who sits on the agency’s oversight committee. The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the Texas House appoint nine of the committee’s 11 members; the Texas attorney general and comptroller are permanent members of the committee.
The Legislature also needs to review the CPRIT Foundation, a private fund-raising appendage to the state agency created by lawmakers in 2009. The foundation, which does not issue grants, should be required to disclose names of its donors (under pressure from the media and others, it released a list of donors this month), and members of the foundation should not be allowed to sit on CPRIT’s oversight committee, as they currently do.
CPRIT is an ambitious, worthwhile effort. We supported its creation and still think its work is worth preserving — but only if its integrity is above reproach. CPRIT is on shaky ground with lawmakers and the public. An overhaul is in order.