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Planeloads of academics would come to Texas to review CPRIT scientific grants. Scientists who reviewed research proposals for the state-funded institute would later tell me that they had never served on a better peer review committee. For the first two-and-a-half years, the system worked smoothly.
There were no separate study sections for specific areas of research. The review committees were broadly constituted: basic, translational, clinical. There were no quotas for cancer type or research approach. There were no quotas based on geography. There were no quotas for science versus commercialization. The state law mandated that up to 10 percent of the funds were to be spent for evidence-based cancer prevention programs. The rest went to peer-reviewed science, including grants to companies, which were reviewed for both scientific quality and commercial potential.
Gilman walked into his office fully realizing that the job of CPRIT Chief Scientific Officer would entail working around bureaucratic absurdity and Texas-sized egos. But even being a seasoned academic politician, he could never have predicted that he would ultimately end up turning whistleblower in the name of defending of peer-reviewed science.
A year before his death from pancreatic cancer, Gilman sat down with me and provided a detailed account of his epic battle to protect public money from what he described as an arrogantly conceived, sloppily executed incursion. The stories of the ungluing of CPRIT and controversies at MD Anderson Cancer Center developed concurrently.
. . . The 11-member oversight committee provided no shield from political meddling. Indeed, Gilman used to say that only one of its 11 members knew that cancer was spelled with a “c.” (That wise man would be Joseph Bailes, an oncologist.)
And, finally, there was a proposal for a $20 million biotech incubator that was going to be located at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Through this proposal—and the role of Lynda Chin, a senior scientist and wife of that institution’s president, Ronald DePinho—the problems at CPRIT merged with controversies over interactions between MD Anderson leadership and private industry. Gilman’s resignation brought these controversies to the attention of scientists and the public.
“I built something I am proud of, and now it’s being taken apart,” Gilman said to me at the time. “I can’t work for people who are pushing their own interests at the expense of the interests of cancer patients.”
Gilman was disappointed but not surprised.
“A wise and experienced friend said to me: ‘This is always the way it works when you put a large amount of public money on the table. The vultures and the hyenas lie low for two or three years to see how the system really works. And then they come in for their feast.’”