Monday, June 25, 2007

A Retrospective on CIRM: The View from Wyoming

The former president of the California stem cell agency – Zach Hall -- reflects on his two years in the job, CIRM's accomplishments and the challenges facing in the $3 billion program in a piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Reporter Terri Somers wrote the Sunday story on the eve of this evening's and tomorrow's meetings dealing with the appointment of a new president. Hall had planned to leave the agency this month, but accelerated his departure following an acrimonious session of CIRM's Facilities group.

Hall was circumspect on some topics, including the longstanding structural problems at CIRM with its dual executive arrangement that is locked into state law by Prop. 71.

Nonetheless, Somers' story offered some insights. She wrote that the president has no clear voice in grant funding. Hall noted that the CIRM president has no seat on CIRM's controlling body, the Oversight Committee, as contrasted to the NIH. Hall said:
"Proposition 71 poses an administrative challenge in that it gives significant leadership responsibility to both the chairman and president. In a small organization, which at the time I was president it was, two strong leaders often posed a challenge. Both of us had (previously) been in leadership positions and had strong views about how things should be done.

"This sometimes led to conflict. In the end, results can best be judged by the record of accomplishment of the institute."
Hall on relations with Oversight Committee members:
"'In retrospect, I think I could have probably worked harder to improve my relations with some of the board members. I think it wasn't clear to me as early as it might have been how important that was,' Hall said. 'I mostly confined my interactions to official occasions, and I think it would have helped if I did some things to meet with people individually.'"
Somers continued:
"There are a number of internal problems at CIRM that need to be worked out, he said.

For example, there needs to be a unified vision among the groups represented on the board and the staff, he said.

"'I hope that out of that process would come a strong sense of mutual trust, which I think was one of the issues at the facilities working group meeting.'"
Hall on relations between CIRM staff and the 29-member Oversight Committee, which sometimes engages in micromanagement (our word, not Hall's):
"The institute has a tremendously talented staff and I think it is important the board trust the staff to do its work, and work in the direction that is congenial with where the board wants to go. There needs to be a sense that the board doesn't need to participate in every decision, or be involved in all details of the administration."
Hall on the private sector and the future:
"The institute's next president, he said, could really make an impact by developing a strategy for working with private industry. So far, the institute has developed plans only for dealing with nonprofit research institutions and universities. Ultimately, the institute wants to partner with companies by helping with clinical trials and getting therapies to patients.

"'This is a whole new territory, and we don't have good models,' Hall said.

"'Because of the way the field has developed, a lot of important discoveries have been made on the private side, and we don't always know what they are. We need to know who it's worth putting money into, while not violating their need for confidentiality, which will be a challenge.'"
Hall's plans? Enjoy the summer at his place in Wyoming and serve on the scientific advisory board of the New York Stem Cell Institute.

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