Stem cell agency jetsetters

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Executives of California’s stem cell agency
are planning to hit the road next year resulting in an eye-popping 287
percent increase in the agency’s travel budget and turning some
executives into globe-trotters who will spend two or three months
traveling outside the state.

Chairman Bob Klein is leading the race to rack up frequent-flier points. He plans to travel outside California for 88 days. Budget planning documents show he’ll be accompanied by at least one staff member and sometimes two.

Chief Science Officer Marie Csete plans on 75 days on the road, while
President Alan Trounson is down for 68 days traveling out of state. 
Chief Communications Officer Don Gibbons is down for 32 days including
a site visit to his old stomping grounds, Harvard.

International destinations for the globe-trotting executives include
China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the United Kingdom, Sweden, The Netherlands, France, Korea, Australia, Italy, South Africa and Canada.

Klein and his immediate staff plan to spend $145,000 on travel
in fiscal 2008-09. That’s more than the entire California Institute for
Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) spent in 2007-2008.  Last year total
travel was $144,000.  Total CIRM travel this year is planned at

Some travel is certainly justified; much of this is not, at least based
on some reality checks I’ve had with scientists I know. Worse is the
way the budget was presented for approval to the CIRM board, the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee.

The budget document
just showed the top-line amounts. There was no breakdown of the
assumptions that produced the numbers.  Here’s how that document
explained the travel budget increase:

"Travel — the most significant change is in out of
state travel to meet the needs of the Science Office. The increase will
allow staff to keep abreast of scientific status and the needs and
priorities within each portfolio area(s) of focus to better move the
science forward through CIRM’s funding programs.  The staff will attend
clinical meetings in several specialty areas, engineering meetings as
well as biology meetings across stem cell disciplines in order to have
an integrated picture of state of the art and forward-looking research

In my mind that’s bafflegab.

As I pointed out at both the Finance Committee and the ICOC meetings, the budget that was presented needed the underlying assumptions: How many trips? How long? At what cost?

Klein told me I’d get those documents. Then the board approved the
budget.  I got the documents about a week after the meeting and used
them for this analysis. I have posted the 2008-09 budget assumptions and the out-of-state travel plans on our website.

After crunching the numbers I checked with some scientists.  All agreed
there is a need for the hard-working science staff to attend some
conferences to stay abreast of the latest developments. Perhaps one or
two a year, suggested one.

Another scientist reported traveling 4-5 days a month to to give
seminars, attend meetings and review grants and then said about CIRM’s
travel plans:

"Is the travel necessary? No.  Useful for CIRM? Probably not very much.  Good for Bob and Alan?  Absolutely."

Voters passed Proposition 71
because they wanted to pay for vital stem cell research in California
that the federal government would not fund.  They did not intend to
send Bob Klein around the world as a stem cell research advocate.

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