The Story of CPRIT Continued, Part 4: The Walkout

Gilman’s resignation, though tendered in May, was effective in October. He wanted to shepherd grants that had already been through peer review but which were not yet actually funded through funding if possible, particularly as they had been delayed in the spring at the same time as the IACS grant was approved. He asked his peer reviewers to hang in with him through October. It is clear that he really tried his hardest to get a change in the new revised course of CPRIT – but he lost, and completely. He tried to get agreement that future commercialization projects would be subject to scientific review – and he got absolutely nowhere on this. He did succeed in getting delayed grants seen through the funding process; and then, in October, he left – and so did most of the peer review panelists he had assembled. Seven of eight scientific review council members resigned, and so did probably around 70 of the approximately 100 out-of-state cancer researchers and clinicians who comprised the peer review panels.

Some of the resignation letters make interesting reading. Scott Kern of Johns Hopkins said he had had an eerily similar experience in the past:
It is ironic that I again find myself in the undesirable position of resigning from a hard-working and highest-quality scientific study section. . . . Ten years ago. I served on the scienfific review board of a private philanthropic organization. In an unusual development, I was asked to review two special grant applications that had arrived out-of-cycle. After my review I was informed by the organiztion that they had beforehand decided to fund the two grants, a decision made prior to obtaining the reviews from the scientific board. They had in this instance perhaps operated as a direct money conduit and not as a peer review-guided granting operation. Owing to the deprecated role of scientific review under such procedures, I regretfully resigned from their board. . . . I now find that a somewhat similar situation exists at CPRIT. 
The irony is as follows. The PI of a grant receiving questionable dispensation ten years ago, and a PI of a grant recently under critical scrutiny for improper dispensation at CPRIT, were the identical person.

Bryan Dylnacht, NYU School of Medicine, wrote:
You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise – and my understanding was that the intended goal of CPRIT was to fund the best cancer research in Texas – on account of this ostensibly new, politically-driven, commercialization-based mission. . .[S]uch a policy – wherein science that has been judged meritorious by a highly esteemed group of scientists is discounted at the expense of science that has not been methodically reviewed . . . will in fact succumb to mediocrity.

William Kaelin of Harvard noted that
Trying to commercialize flawed science is a prescription for failure and waste.

William C Hahn of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center wrote that::
I am troubled by the Oversight Committee’s recent request that those of us that participated in the scientific review of commercialization applications reconsider our scoring in the absence of any additional substantive information or progress by the applicants to strengthen what were wholly naïve and underdeveloped applications. These actions make it clear that the CPRIT Oversight Committee has elected to disregard scientific review to pursue a different agenda.

John Petrini of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center stated that
CPRIT leadership has begun to assert an agenda in which commercialization and salesmanship are rewarded and scientific quality devalued. This is a disservice to the people of your state that will inhibit the prosecution of fruitful scientific endeavors focused on cancer.

 The Cancer Letter summed it up:
The scientific review council members are being followed by the vast majority of rank-and-file reviewers, . . . all from outside Texas. . . .
MD Anderson officials withdrew the incubator grant, pledging to resubmit it for review later. Yet, scientists are leaving because they have no confidence in a post-Gilman CPRIT. 
This walkout is an extraordinary act of solidarity on a scale never before observed in cancer science in the U.S. Even when former NCI director Andrew von Eschenbach was making patently absurd statements about eliminating suffering and death due to cancer by the year 2015, he encountered no open opposition from scientists.
     The walkout—and, perhaps more so, the letters—send a powerful signal that CPRIT is now outside mainstream cancer science.