Friday, August 03, 2007

Peril and the CIRM Presidential Search

Attempting to understand the presidential search of the California stem cell agency certainly meets the definition of a task fraught with peril. It is a process that is being conducted behind closed doors and whose participants are sworn to secrecy on any significant details. All of which is entirely appropriate.

Nonetheless the search is fundamentally important to the current and future health of the $3 billion effort and is worthy of some public scrutiny.

We wrote earlier this week about the process, and today another piece of ours appeared on

To summarize: compensation, personal chemistry, structural management issues all are complicating the recruitment effort. But there are others, one of which is the desire for a blue ribbon scientist to run the agency. But the new president would also be expected to give up his lab and research work. The first search in 2005 apparently brought forth some scientists/presidential candidates who wanted to continue their lab work. This time around that seems to have been ruled out by the Oversight Committee. So that narrows the field.

Former president Zach Hall earlier this year suggested to CIRM directors that a new president could do very well without having a high-toned scientific pedigree. But when we talked to Oversight Committee member Jeff Sheehy last week, he said candidates with a good scientific vision were the ones that excited him. Of course, Sheehy is but one of 29 members of the committee.

Hall also said in an interview last month that the Oversight Committee “must be willing to enable a new president to take a strong leadership role.” It was a comment based on the ticklish relationship between him and California stem cell chairman Robert Klein, which was exacerbated by Prop. 71's unnecessary dabblings in management minutia. Those are now locked in state law and virtually immutable.

Finally come comments from John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumers Rights. He is a longtime observer of CIRM and reasonably fair-minded. We asked him for his thoughts on the search. Here is the text of what he sent us:
"The selection of CIRM's president is undoubtedly the ICOC's single most important task. He or she will be the chief executive of an enterprise that is costing California taxpayers $6 billion.

"Zach Hall helped define the president's role and deserves credit for getting the fledgling agency off the ground. The new president faces the daunting task of moving forward from entrepreneurial, adrenaline-filled days of a start-up mode to maintaining an established agency where the routine is, indeed, routine.

"He or she must be seen to do the public's business in public and will need vision to move the agency forward.

"A thick skin and diplomatic skills will be a necessary in dealing with some of the oversized egos on the ICOC as well as the various members of the public who take an interest in the agency.

"Judging from hints dropped by ICOC Chairman Bob Klein, the new president will have to deal with a new board chairman within a year; Klein will likely step down in 2008. That could make the new president's job easier.

"The average California probably won't pay much attention to the agency even though $6 billion of taxpayer money is at stake unless something goes terribly wrong, or incredibly right -- meaning a significant scientific breakthrough results from California's efforts.

"The most likely scenario is the middle ground. Incremental advances, but no flashy breakthroughs.

"If the ICOC can pick the perfect person, however, Californians will ultimately take notice because the president will actually deliver on the wild promises made during the campaign to pass Proposition 71."
One caveat to Simpson's remarks. While Klein did speak last December about stepping down next year, it is not a done deal. Sphere: Related Content

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