Its proper name is Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, but at the beginning of the current legislative session, its name was mud.
It appears that the agency — on the brink of extinction at the beginning of the session — will survive, but is clearly on probation. To regain public and legislative trust, the agency has to be diligent that mistakes of the past not be repeated. The agency’s current leaders indicate that they understand that clearly and pledge to avoid further missteps. The agency’s mission is vital, and obviously, that mission can only be accomplished if the agency is scientifically efficient and its operations kept transparent.
A series of embarrassing revelations in 2012 raised questions about oversight and judgment exercised in awarding research grants. The good intentions that launched the cancer initiative five years before did not armor it against accusations of ethical lapses in both raising money for cancer research and funding it. Three high-ranking officials resigned last year as CPRIT faced allegations of favoritism in awarding grants.
When voters approved the initiative in 2007, they authorized the agency to borrow up to $3 billion in bond funds over the course of 10 years to fund cancer research. Though grant applications were supposed to undergo a rigorous scientific evaluation, questions soon began to surface about the agency’s objectivity and that was followed by the implosions.
In addition, the activity of a separate but related organization — the CPRIT Foundation — raised its share of legislative and public eyebrows. The foundation insisted on its keeping its donor list secret, which naturally give rise to questions about whether donors gave to the foundation as a way to win grants from the agency. The foundation raised $3.6 million — a third of that came from pharmaceutical or biotechnology interests.
Travis County prosecutors opened a criminal investigation and the Texas attorney general launched a civil one.
As the session approached, it was clear that legislators were feeling pressure to take swift and decisive action. Some legislators weren’t thrilled about creating the agency in the first place. But supporters of the initiative were both influential and bi-partisan. It was hard to say “no” to funding research that might lead to cancer cures.
The stumbles, however, made it hard to say “yes” to the agency’s continued existence.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, was the first legislator to file a bill to overhaul CPRIT rather than kill it. Nelson campaigned aggressively to create the agency and deserves credit for doing the heavy lifting involved in saving it.
The reforms diluted the agency director’s power and injected more transparency into the agency’s process in awarding grants.
The idea of a chastened, reformed CPRIT picked up public and legislative support. Recently, the Senate approved $594 million on programs in the upcoming two-year budget, contingent on the approval of the reform measures. Should the reform measures win approval — and there is no good reason why they shouldn’t be — the agency will get $594 million for the two-year budget cycle.
It is second chance to get it right.