Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wanted: CEO For Promising $3 Billion Giveaway Program

One year ago this month the situation at the California stem cell agency was likened to the war in Iraq by a Nobel Prize winning scientist from Stanford.

Today the situation is much improved. So what better time for CIRM's president, Zach Hall, to announce that he is leaving.

Which is what he did last week. The move prompted comments that clashes with CIRM Chairman Robert Klein may have been involved, but Hall is 69 and has made it clear from the start that he did not want to hold the post over a long period of time.

Hall and Klein have butted heads. Klein told reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune, "We mentally challenged each other to excel." But Hall also said said his plan to leave within six months is almost entirely personal. His wife retired earlier this year. They have a place in Wyoming. They love the outdoors. He doesn't need the money. And who needs the aggravation and long hours that came with the president's job.

Hall's work has set the stage for approval of the first round of research grants. And he oversaw preparation of the agency's now approved plan for giving away $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research. It is a far cry from last December when New York Times reporter Andrew Pollack quoted Paul Berg, the Stanford Nobel laureate, as likening the situation at CIRM to the Iraq war.
"We won the war and didn't know what to do afterward," Berg said.
Last week Hall summed up life at CIRM for the agency's directors:
“The institute has money in the bank now. There is infrastructure in place. And some of our initial organizational problems seem to be working out positively, so I think this is a good time for you to look for a new president.”
John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and a longtime observer of CIRM affairs, had this comment:
"Seems to me that by the time Zach leaves the following will be accomplished:

"Major training, research and joint research facilities grants will have been awarded.

"Major polices on IP, medical and ethical standards, and grant administration will be in place.

"A realistic scientific strategic plan will be in place that emphasizes science rather than hype.

"The role of the president and chief executive of CIRM will have been defined by Zach's commitment and high standards in a way that minimizes the possibility of excessive meddling by the ICOC chairman in the day-to-day operation of the institute.

"In sum, he'll have done a heck of lot to get the fledgling state agency off the ground and functioning in a productive way. Not at all a bad time to pass the torch to a younger leader."
Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society, another regular observer of the agency, said,
"I was surprised when he took the longer-term job in the first place, so I am not really surprised now. His can't be an easy job."
CIRM seemed to have difficulty in finding a president back in 2005 which is one reason that Hall agreed to serve longer as president. Now the agency has the task of starting a new search, although it presumably could go back to the list it had worked on then. The job is likely to seem less risky, but the agency has structural problems involving the president's job that cannot be changed short of another vote of the people. Those involve overlapping responsibilities with the chairman.

Klein, however, indicated to reporter Somers that he may be leaving in 2008, setting the stage for a different sort of relationship between a new president and new chairman. Somers wrote that Klein, who works without a salary, said "he planned to stay probably another year so he could contribute his real estate and facilities expertise when the institute is expected to award large grants for the construction of new research facilities."

The Oversight Committee took no action last week on setting up a search for a new president since the matter was not placed on the agenda in advance as required by state law. The next meeting of the group is not scheduled until February, but presumably the old presidential search subcommittee could reconvene quickly. It also seems reasonable to assume that some work is already underway to prepare for a new search, either on Klein's part or other folks at the agency.

Hall's departure overshadowed the announcement of the resignation of Mary Maxon, deputy vice chair of the agency. She has been instrumental in putting together CIRM's proposals on the critical intellectual property policies. Maxon has been with CIRM since the beginning. She noted arduous nature of work at CIRM. "It's been like three jobs in one," she told Somers.

Hall's announcement does raise the level of uncertainty at the tiny agency (roughly 20 staffers) at a time when stability seemed to be increasing. It is likely to make it more difficult to recruit other top level people, such as the chief legal officer and senior facilities officer, which are among four positions that agency hopes to fill soon.

Hall brought a steady hand, good humor, common sense and good science to a young and struggling organization in its formative years. All qualities whose absence can be sorely missed.

(Here are links to other stories on Hall: Rebecca Vesely, Oakland Tribune; Mary Engel, Los Angeles Times; Carl Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Associated Press.

(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly attributed the "we mentally challenged each other" quote to Zach Hall. It came from Bob Klein.) Sphere: Related Content

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