Stem cell agency management becomes Old Boys Club

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Looking at recent top hires at the California stem cell agency, I’d  been focusing on the fat salaries being paid to the executives. Today  a more troubling trend dawned on me: The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s inner executive circle is  becoming an Old Boys Club.

Consider this:  With the exception of Chief Science Officer Marie Csete all the key inner circle positions — chairman, vice chairman,  president, vice president and chief communications officer — are all held by caucasian gentlemen of, as the French would say, un certain age.  (Since CIRM executives plan a good bit of globe-trotting in the coming year, French seemed appropriate.)

Now I don’t have anything against fat old white guys, being one myself.  I do know, however, that there are great weaknesses in a management where everybody looks like everybody else. It leads to group-think.

Especially in a state like California, it is imperative that the management of a state agency reflect the diversity of the state’s population. CIRM’s does not.

Looking into CIRM’s most recent hire, John A. Robson as vice president, the dangers of the old boy network become even more apparent. Robson, at a salary of $310,000 is coming from Canada’s McGill University where he was Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the Faculty of Medicine.

According to a CIRM release:

" ‘CIRM’s recruitment of Dr. Robson is a coup,’ commented Dr. Richard Murphy who was the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill and worked closely with Dr. Robson. "

Some background: After leaving McGill, Murphy became president of the Salk Institute and in that capacity served as a member of CIRM’s oversight board, the Independent Citizens Committee.  He stepped down from the ICOC when he left Salk last summer.

He then became interim CIRM president for a consulting fee of $300,000 after Chairman Robert Klein had a falling out with then CIRM acting president Lori Hoffman. She was subsequently pushed out of the agency. Murphy held down the CIRM fort until Alan Trounson could move from Australia and assume the presidency this spring.

After arriving, Trounson kept Murphy on as a strategic consultant making $80,000 for three-and-a-half months. The contract started April 15 and runs until July 31. The new 2008-09 budget has another  $100,000 earmarked for consulting from Murphy. The president can approve contracts up to $250,000 on his own.

Looks like an old boys’ network to me.

In fairness to the ICOC, the closed session where Robson’s hiring was discussed, was quite lengthy implying heated debate. When the board emerged to approve the decision in public on a voice vote, instead of the usual unanimity in such cases, Jeff Sheehy and Claire Pomeroy voted "no".

It’s not even clear to me why CIRM went to Canada to hire a vice president who is envisioned as the agency’s chief operating officer. In fact, I’m not sure why one is even needed. The agency’s first president, Dr. Zach Hall and  chief scientific officer Arlene Chiu managed just fine without one. Could this be related to the number of road trips that are planned? Somebody has to stay home and mind the store.

Even assuming the need for the vice president,  there are a number of well qualified candidates in California and probably available for less than $310,000 a year.  

There are other troubling aspects of the emerging Old Boys Club.  Under the Hall-Chiu regime the agency’s  top executives had extensive experience on the grant-making and management side of the equation by virtue of their time at the National Institutes of Health. They knew something about holding grantees accountable.

The Old Boys Club members’ experience has been on the grant-receiving side — and most of that in academia.  Certainly some of the top executives at an agency charged with handing out $3 billion in scientific grants should have experience on the grant-making side. It’s almost as if the henhouse is being taken over by the foxes.   

One of Robson’s McGill’s colleagues, Dr. David Colman, praised CIRM’s choice, saying, "John will bring a wealth of connections in the Canadian scientific community that will benefit California as the two seek to establish collaborations in the stem cell field."

I fear the Old Boys Club is letting visions of playing on the international stage distract them from what is really CIRM’s charge: Funding vital research and finding cures in California.  The real danger of a having a management team that looks alike is that team members will think alike. Nobody will stand up and say, "Wait a minute; just what are we doing here and why?"

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