Even a $400,000 Salary Can’t Woo Stem-Cell Chief to Golden State

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WIRED Magazine

Directors of the nation’s most ambitious embryonic stem-cell research effort — a $3 billion program funded by California taxpayers — are struggling this month to find a new president and ease concerns that the pioneering program could stall as it embarks on its largest grant effort.

Dogged by salary issues — $400,000 appears to be too low — and questions about who is really in charge at the agency, the recruitment effort has missed its ambitious goal of filling the post by June.

Critics and other observers fear that the lack of a permanent executive for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, could hamper its burgeoning efforts and the monitoring of public funds. The young and tiny agency is scheduled to pump out $258 million in grants by January — about $29,000 an hour this year.

Hiring a CEO to run the organization is “the single most important” task currently facing its directors, said CIRM watchdog John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Following the Bush administration’s restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, proponents of the science, which researchers say could lead to treatments to disorders from Alzheimer’s to paralysis, drafted Proposition 71, a California bond measure and constitutional change that voters passed in 2004. The law created the CIRM, and promised $3 billion for stem-cell research over the next decade. The effort was slow out of the gate, fighting (successfully) a lawsuit during its first two years. Now, CIRM is the largest single funder of embryonic stem-cell research in the world. Leading such a high-profile and high-paying organization would seem like a coveted and easy-to-fill position. Yet seven months into a search, CIRM is without a CEO.

Some say the chairman of CIRM and the principal author of Proposition 71, Robert Klein, has played a part in making recruitment difficult. Tension between him and Zach Hall, the previous CIRM president, has flared from time to time.

When Klein and his co-authors drafted Proposition 71, they created overlapping responsibilities for the chairman and the president, a state of affairs that is fixed in state law.

The overlap has resulted in some strife. At one meeting, directors spent hours publicly discussing whether Klein or Hall had the authority to assign office space — just one example of several relatively minor management issues the men brought to the board.

The 29 CIRM directors have tried to ease the confusion by creating their own executive structure to make the presidential post more appealing. One former CIRM director, Richard Murphy, former head of the Salk Institute, on Feb. 21 characterized the structure as a “dog’s breakfast.” For example, to shift more responsibility to the president they cut the number of employees in the chairman’s office from 10 to four (CIRM has 26 employees), giving more responsibility to the president. Klein voted for the move at the time, but he has already begun pressing for more staff.

“The point that we’re left with, which is a very, very difficult one, is that within a very small organization, there are two leaders,” Hall said during the public meeting when the management changes were made.

In response to questions about whether the executive structure or his aggressive management style at CIRM has deterred candidates or negatively affected recruitment, Klein responded: “The search is progressing.”

Tension between some directors and Hall also surfaced during a public CIRM meeting in April. It was a session that might give pause to any candidate seeking to replace Hall.

By the date of the meeting, Hall, who has been widely praised for his CIRM performance, had already announced his plans to leave. He was 69 years old and had not planned to stay long when he took the job in 2005. Last December, he gave the board six months’ notice to find a successor. Hall, however, left two months early following the acrimonious public session April 13.

The meeting nominally involved the schedule for making lab grants. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that one director, physician Janet Wright of Chico, California, said she could not believe “the tone of contention, sarcasm and aggression toward Hall.”

The high cost of housing in San Francisco is at the heart of the salary issue — the median price of a home in the city is $825,000, up 4.4 percent in the last year despite a national housing slump. Hall earned $389,000 annually but he already owned a home in San Francisco. CIRM directors have met behind closed doors to discuss boosting the salary range beyond its current cap of $412,500. How high? No one has said publicly, but large sums have been tossed around.

According to meeting transcripts from March 2, David Kessler, a CIRM director and medical school dean at the University of California at San Francisco, asked Klein: “We’re not — correct me, Bob, if I’m wrong — we’re not intending to pay 750 (thousand) for the president’s salary?” The transcripts show no response.

The latest attempt to fill the position came when directors of the CIRM met behind closed doors in an unusual special meeting July 24 — the third in a month. The meetings ended with no public decision.

A lid of secrecy has been clamped on the effort following disclosure earlier this year of one candidate’s name, James Battey, head of the National Institutes of Health stem-cell program. (Battey told Wired News by phone he is no longer a candidate.)

CIRM, meanwhile, is moving unsteadily toward approving its largest single grant program — $220 million to build research labs. Last month a CIRM committee met to come up with criteria for handing out the money, but no preliminary draft was available even as the meeting convened.

Simpson said failure to provide the information — of great interest to universities from Stanford to the University of California at San Diego — made a “mockery of the process.” Two weeks later on July 30, he was happier, declaring at another meeting on the grants that the process was “enhanced.”

Following the same meeting, Klein said he hopes to advance the search “in a material way” when CIRM directors meet Aug. 8. Klein defended the length of the recruitment effort, comparing to it to 12- to 18-month searches for university executives. Klein said he was “committed to getting absolutely the right person.”
David Jensen publishes the California Stem Cell Report.

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