Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The $200 Million Edifice Issue

The resignation letter released earlier today by CIRM President Zach Hall referred to a more than $200 million edifice issue that now embroils California's stem cell agency.

What's at stake are huge grants for building projects at universities and nonprofit facilities throughout California. CIRM is currently involved in laying the groundwork for the grants, many of which will go to institutions whose leaders serve on the very board that will make the decisions about which receive money and which don't.

The key CIRM committee in preparing the criteria for the grants is its Facilities Working Group, which met last Friday. Hall's letter said the meeting was "exceedingly contentious and occasionally personal." He also said it was clear that there was a strong desire in the working group for a longer approach to the generating the grants than he was prepared to direct.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation of Consumer and Taxpayer Rights, said in a press release that "Hall's health should be a primary concern, but clearly there are substantial disagreements at stake here. It's never a good sign when an agency's chief executive leaves after a policy dispute."

Hall declined to comment further on the remarks in his letter. The April 13 meeting was not covered by the media, and its transcript is not yet available. But based on responses from some Oversight Committee members at the meeting, it seemed to involve at least some of the issues that surfaced at a meeting of three days earlier at a meeting of the Oversight Committee.

The April 10 discussion was a bit unfocused and confusing. But it involved issues of whether additional information was needed before requests for grant applications could be prepared and what sort of building plans were underway at various institutions. Some Oversight Committee have pressed for continued speed in making grants. Others, in this case, said they needed more information.

Stem Cell Chairman Robert Klein called for a "straw vote" on whether CIRM staff should conduct a survey of California institutions about their stem cell related building plans. The transcript shows that the vote for a survey failed, but no actual vote was announced.

David Serrano-Sewell, an Oversight Committee member and vice chair of the Facilities Working Group, noted, however, that a majority of that group wanted the survey.

At about that point, Klein moved on to other issues before the Oversight Committee.

We queried some of the members of the Facilities group, which also includes persons who are not on the Oversight Committee, about Hall's remarks concerning the "exceedingly contentious" nature of the later Facilities meeting.

One said that Hall "got crosswise" with some of the patient advocate members at the Facilities group meeting.

Another member of the group said,
"There was some 'heated' adult conversation. Not contentious or personal, at most, it was passionate and spirited. I think the record, once published, will speak for itself. Zach did a lot of good and has alot to proud of."
The transcript will certainly help clarify what exactly transpired. But such documents also do not convey a complete picture of an event.

Hall clearly felt that what occurred was unusual and a cause for concern. It also comes at a time when much is at stake for medical school deans and others whose employers stand to benefit from the massive building grants. That is not to mention that the agency is in the midst of a search for a new president (Hall had already announced his intention to leave in June). Meanwhile the fledgling and tiny CIRM staff must continue to maintain a steady course without a permanent president and no indication when a new one might come aboard.

(On a personal note, Hall's health is the primary concern. We wish him a speedy recovery and all the best.) Sphere: Related Content

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