Monday, August 27, 2007

CIRM Loses its No. 1 Scientist

The top scientist at the California stem cell agency, Arlene Chiu, will soon depart in a move that reinforces the importance of maintaining the organization's stability and finding a new, permanent president.

CIRM has been in a lame-duck mode since last December when former President Zach Hall announced that he planned to leave. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumers Rights, said Chiu's resignation "underscores the importance" of finding a permanent president.

Simpson said the failure to have a new, permanent CEO in place represents "a substantial failure of leadership first and foremost on the part of board Chairman Bob Klein and to a lesser extent on the part of all board members."

Earlier this month, the CIRM Oversight Committee installed Richard Murphy, former president of the Salk Institute, as interim president for at least six months as it continues to seek a permanent replacement for Hall.

CIRM is still a young organization (less than three years old) with a small staff (26 persons)that has seen other significant departures relatively recently. They include Kirk Kleinschmidt, director of legislative relations; Mary Maxon, the lead staff person on intellectural property, Scott Tocher, associate general counsel; and scientific officer Ruth Globus. While it would be incorrect to say that all CIRM staff departures this year are related to the presidential situation, voids in permanent leadership create uncertainties and instability. Departures for unrelated reasons can take on a life of their own, triggering others to consider making job changes. Couple that with the regularly long hours that CIRM staffers put in, and you have the potential for more losses.

In several ways, the press release on Chiu's departure acknowledged those concerns. Indeed, the headline on the release did not even say she was resigning. Carefully crafted to stress continuity and stability, it noted that she will continue through the end of October on a fulltime basis and after that as a consultant on some of CIRM's important efforts. Chiu as well issued a statement emphasizing the progress at CIRM and the credentials of interim President Murphy.

On a personal note, Chiu is one of the first persons that we met at CIRM. Her diligence, integrity and dedication have always impressed us. And as one of the earliest regular staff members, she set a tone and example that was important in establishing a healthy organizational culture at the new enterprise.

She was recruited by Hall, who issued the following statement, which is not currently available on the CIRM Web site:
"Persuading Dr. Arlene Chiu to come to CIRM from NIH was one of the most important accomplishments of my presidency. As the senior CIRM scientist during its first three years - a time of constrained resources, Arlene recruited, mentored and led the scientific team responsible for awarding the first $200 M in grants for stem cell research in California - a remarkable legacy. She has a deep understanding of stem cell research, expert knowledge of grants administration, and extraordinary personal qualities of integrity, grace and a passion for the mission of CIRM. Arlene has left her mark on the DNA of CIRM. She will be hard to replace."
Murphy and Klein also issued statements which can be found in the CIRM press release. Chiu's statement can also be found in the press release.

Here is the complete statement from Simpson:
"Dr. Chiu is one of the all-too-often unsung heroes of CIRM, regularly going beyond the call of duty to ensure scientific excellence in the agency's efforts. She has built an excellent scientific staff that should be able to carry on in her absence.

"We agreed to disagree on some things, like the amount of transparency and openness that belongs in the peer review process; but I have tremendous respect for her and her contributions.

"I believe Dr. Chiu's departure underscores the importance of the oversight committee performing its single most important task: hiring a president and chief executive.

"Had the committee done so in a timely way, I believe Dr. Chiu would still be at CIRM. Given the situation, the selection of Richard Murphy as interim president is a necessary stopgap to hold the agency together.

"But the failure to hire a permanent president, given Zach Hall's announcement of his plans last December, is a substantial failure of leadership first and foremost on the part of board Chairman Bob Klein and too a lesser extent on the part of all board members."
News coverage of Chiu's resignation was light. Here are links to the stories we saw: Jim Downing of The Sacramento Bee, Kristen Philipkoski, Wired.com, Sacramento Business Journal (the same story appeared in other Business Journals), and the Associated Press. Sphere: Related Content

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