Wednesday, December 24, 2008

CIRM Begins Application Triage Experiment

The California stem cell agency is moving forward on its plan to perform closed-door, staff-connected triage on grant proposals before they move into the peer review process.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., reported on the action by CIRM directors on Tuesday. But he suggests an alternative that could serve CIRM's desire to reduce the number of applications on some grant rounds. Just open up the grant application process so that the public would know who is applying and hear the pros and cons on the applications.

Writing on his organization's blog, he said,
"It's our $3 billion that's being handed out. If you want our money, you ought to be willing to ask for it in public. Nothing builds more trust in a review process than having it completely transparent."
Simpson reported that Tuesday's special, teleconference board meeting failed to muster a quorum despite an attempt to set up multiple out-of-state locations for the convenience of traveling board members. Only 15 checked in. Nineteen are needed for a quorum. The full board has 29 members.

Failure to attain a quorum meant no action on the request by the International Society of Stem Cell Research for $400,000 to help finance its $1.5 million convention in San Francisco in 2010. It was the second time the board has failed to act on the request.

Here is a link to CIRM's four-page explanation of the triage proposal. The process will be applied in the $60 million basic biology round. The RFA should be posted before the end of this year with the "pre-applications" due towards the end of January. Sphere: Related Content

Correction

The Dec. 22, 2008, item on the ISSCR grant request from the California stem cell agency incorrectly gave the figure as $420,000 as the result of erroneous information from CIRM. The correct figure is $400,000. The additional $20,000 appeared in the CIRM grant application from the ISSCR which we have been told automatically adds 5 percent "indirect costs" to the amount requested. However, the 5 percent does not apply in this case. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Correction

The "financial status" item on Dec. 22, 2008, incorrectly said that CIRM stated that its grant money will run out at the end of this coming June. As noted later in the item, CIRM said it can "cover grant commitments at least through July 2009." Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 22, 2008

Attention Scientists: CIRM Proposes Triage on Research Plans

The California stem cell agency is proposing a form of scientific triage on research proposals, weeding them out even before they get into the peer review process.

Up for consideration at tomorrow afternoon's CIRM board meeting, the pilot project could have major implications for stem cell researchers in California, allowing them to bypass screening committees at their institutions. The proposal also would create another layer in the closed-door CIRM grant approval process, vest major, new authority with the CIRM staff and push the CIRM board even further away from the de facto decisions on grant applications.

The plan has yet to be published by CIRM on its web site. However, Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, made an electronic copy of the Power Point presentation available to the California Stem Cell Report. If you would like a copy, please email the California Stem Cell Report (djensen@californiastemcellreport.com) or CIRM (info@cirm.ca.gov).

The proposal would involve a "pre-application review" of proposals that would involve CIRM staff and two members of the grants review group. It is patterned after "comparable procedures from from the Gates Foundation/MJFF/NIH/Genome Canada."

Some members of the CIRM board of directors balked at the proposal earlier this month. CIRM staff is bringing it up again tomorrow with changes aimed at addressing directors' concerns.

One key reason behind the proposal is to help ease the workload of the scientists who come from out-of-state to review applications. Sometimes the number of applications have run into the hundreds, creating time-consuming situations where scientists are reluctant to devote their time.

It is also designed to ferret out applications that are nixed by institutions prior to coming to CIRM. Marie Csete, CIRM's chief scientific officer, said the agency has received complaints that the best science is not always getting to CIRM.

She told directors earlier this month that CIRM may "not be seeing the full range of science from young scientists."

The public can participate in the meeting from locations in San Francisco (3), Berkeley, Elk Grove, Healdsburg, Los Angeles (3), Koloa, Hi., Beverly Hills, Irvine (2), La Jolla (2), Stanford, Cornelius, NC, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Chicago. The out-of-state locations are presumably where some CIRM directors will be tomorrow afternoon but they are still legally public as far as CIRM meetings go. The specific addresses can be found on the meeting agenda. Sphere: Related Content

Stem Cell Science Group Seeks $400,000 From CIRM

Consumer Watchdog calls it "unbelievable" and "a flagrant squandering of public money." The group says it serves no purpose other "than to inflate the already healthy egos of CIRM's globe-trotting executives "

The language comes from John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Santa Monica, Ca., group. Writing on the group's blog, he refers to a pitch by the prestigious International Society for Stem Cell Research for $400,000 from CIRM to pay for 28 percent of the cost of the society's 2010 convention in San Francisco.

Tomorrow afternoon, the grant request will be considered by the CIRM board of directors at a special teleconference meeting. Multiple locations are available throughout the state and even outside of the state where the public can comment.

The request first came before the board earlier this month with no written explanation or detailed justification of benefits to the state of California. Directors told CIRM staff to provide more details if funding was to be seriously considered.

CIRM has close ties to ISSCR. CIRM President Alan Trounson is on the board of directors of the society. CIRM Chairman Robert Klein was a member of an advisory committee to ISCCR in 2007, according to The Niche, Nature magazine's stem cell blog. Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, is a member of the group's public education committee.

The request for the grant is signed by Irv Weissman of Stanford, whose medical school dean is on the CIRM board of directors. Weissman will be president of the group in 2009. Stanford has received $95 million in grants from CIRM. Weissman has received $2.6 million.

It is not uncommon for professional organizations to seek some sort of financial assistance from enterprises whose executives serve on the professional group's board of directors.

However, the timing on this pitch is unfortunate, to say the least, given the $40 billion California budget shortfall. Moreover, funding of the convention seems a tad lavish. For example, it includes $235,000 for marketing expenses, a figure that seems more appropriate for MacWorld than a gathering of stem cell researchers.

Even in brighter times, a $400,000 donation from the state would be dubious. Today it cannot be justified unless CIRM wants to chalk up some serious minus points with the folks in the state Capitol and with the public at large.

The public can participate in the meeting from locations in San Francisco (3), Berkeley, Elk Grove, Healdsburg, Los Angeles (3), Koloa, Hi., Beverly Hills, Irvine (2), La Jolla (2), Stanford, Cornelius, NC, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Chicago. The out-of-state locations are presumably where some CIRM directors will be tomorrow afternoon but they are still legally public as far as CIRM meetings go. The specific addresses can be found on the meeting agenda.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that the ISSCR grant request totalled $420,000. The erroneous information came from CIRM. The additional $20,000 appeared in the CIRM grant application from the ISSCR which we have been told automatically adds 5 percent "indirect costs" to the amount requested. However, the 5 percent does not apply in this case. ) Sphere: Related Content

CIRM Clarifies Its Financial Status: Grant Money Could Run Out by June

How long can CIRM continue to operate at full strength given the current state of California's fiscal crisis?

According to CIRM, the agency can cover its "grant commitments" through the end of next July and perhaps longer. After that, the agency will have only enough money to monitor existing grants and perform other "office operations" for another 12 months.

The response came from Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM. We asked him to clarify apparent discrepancies in CIRM's financial status that were posed in the item below.

The matter is of some import since the state of California has suspended the issuance of state bonds because of the budget stalemate in Sacramento. Bonds constitute virtually the only source of funding for CIRM.

However, we think it is highly unlikely that bond sales will be suspended for the next six months. The state's budget problems should not be minimized, but a solution is almost certain to be found before June. If not, CIRM funding will be among the least of the worries in California.

More to the point is the fact that CIRM enjoys a favored financial position while the rest of state government is struggling. That situation poses PR and policy problems for CIRM that we have discussed previously.

For the record, here is Gibbons' response to questions about CIRM's financial status. They involved the $168.9 million CIRM budget figure in a San Francisco Business Times article and a $160 million figure given to us by Robert Klein, chairman of the stem cell agency. They also involved Gibbons' statement in the Times article that said CIRM had enough to fund office operations until July 2010. Gibbons replied:
"Both are correct. We have enough to cover grant commitments at least through July 2009, but will still have enough in reserve to fund 'office operations' for another year so that we can continue to monitor existing grants, manage the standards review processes, etc."
Gibbons did not respond to our question concerning CIRM's reaction to the governor's request for a 10 percent payroll reduction and mandatory furloughs that amount to a 9 percent salary cut.

(Editor's note: In an earlier version of this item, the second paragraph incorrectly reported that CIRM said its grant money would run out at the end of next June. The next to the last paragraph has also been rewritten to clarify that there were two elements in the question placed to Gibbons.) Sphere: Related Content

Layoffs Loom at California State Agencies, Not Likely at CIRM

More details about the financial condition of the California stem cell agency are emerging as sweeping layoffs and pay cuts have been ordered at other state agencies.

On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said 238,000 state employees must take what amounts to a 9 percent pay cut via mandatory, unpaid furloughs. He also ordered payroll cuts that amount to 10 percent, beginning Feb. 1.

The governor asked state agencies that he cannot directly control, such as the University of California and CIRM, to take similar action.

Also on Friday, Ron Leuty of the San Francisco Business Times reported:
"The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine next month will weigh a contingency financing plan that could include bond anticipation notes and a private placement with major philanthropic backers.

"The move, which would have to be approved by the state stem cell bond committee and Treasurer Bill Lockyer, comes against the backdrop of a financial markets meltdown that has clipped access to capital for companies and government agencies alike."
Leuty continued:
"CIRM has $168.9 million on hand, said spokesman Don Gibbons, and has enough to fund office operations until July 2010."
That statement is somewhat at variance with figures provided by California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein. He told the California Stem Cell Report earlier this month at the meeting of the CIRM board of directors at UC Irvine that $160 million was available between now and the end of June.

We are querying CIRM concerning the discrepancy and the governor's payroll cuts.

However, CIRM has been chronically understaffed since its inception and actually needs to hire more employees to bring it up to its legal cap of 50, which is tiny compared to the magnitude of running a program that has now awarded more than $600 million in building and research grants. The agency has already indicated it wants to add the much-needed employees, and, in our view, is not likely to roll back staffing levels

Leuty also had an interesting financial tidbit concerning Klein, who says that he has spent personally $6.5 million on behalf of Prop. 71 and CIRM.

Leuty wrote:
"Klein, who operates a financial advisory firm in Palo Alto, said he spent $5.5 million shepherding Proposition 71 through approval and has swallowed $1 million in CIRM-related costs since then while working 40-hour-plus workweeks as chairman."
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 18, 2008

CIRM Responds to Financial Disparity Questions

The California stem cell agency has responded to questions involving the cutbacks and issues raised in the "Handouts vs. Cutbacks" item below.

Don Gibbons
, chief communications officer for CIRM, said Klein is not personally affected by the cuts in funding for affordable housing.

We also asked:
"Does CIRM have anything to say about whether it is appropriate for it to continue handing out tens of millions of dollars or more while facilities for the deaf go unfunded and cutbacks are made in levee reinforcement to protect Sacramento from becoming another Katrina-like disaster, among the thousands of other affected projects?"
Gibbons complete response, which are carrying word-for-word, was:
"The projects being frozen are funded through Pooled Money Investment accounts and CIRM has less than $2 million in that fund.  CIRM bonds have delayed repayment schedules, so have no impact at all on this year’s budget."
Sphere: Related Content

Handouts vs. Cutbacks: Strange Financial Tales from the Golden State

Citing the state's severe financial problems, California officials Wednesday shut down $3.8 billion in cash for public works projects, including some closely connected to directors of the state's stem cell agency. The action came coincidentally just one week after the agency gave away $20 million in state funds to stem cell researchers.

The cuts in bond-financed programs struck at projects to aid both the deaf and ailing veterans as well as to assist in genomics research. Also hit were construction projects at medical facilities at UC Davis and UC San Diego, both of which have representatives on the CIRM board.

Funding for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of housing projects was halted, raising the possibility that the moves could personally affect CIRM Chairman Bob Klein, whose real estate investment banking firm specializes in affordable housing.

CIRM spending, however, is a mere piffle compared to the state's $40 billion budget shortfall. But their financial disparity highlights the stem cell agency's unusual nature and the public policy issues that arise when ballot initiatives lock up state funds and create a favored place for some state programs.

The stem cell agency enjoys a relatively rosy position compared to nearly all other state departments. As the result of Prop. 71, which altered the state constitution and state law, CIRM is assured of state bond funding that goes directly to the agency and which cannot be touched by the governor or the legislature. In response to questions from CIRM directors last week, Klein said that the agency had enough money to operate normally at least until the end of June next year. Compare that to predictions that California will not be able to pay its bills by the end of February.

CIRM currently is drawing its cash primarily from the proceeds of a $250 million bond offering that was completed in the fall of 2007.

However, the state is not currently issuing any additional bonds because of the state's budget crisis, which includes $60 billion in debt and the worst credit rating of any state in the nation, according to the Wall Street Journal. Without additional funding, CIRM could run out of money at some point. However, Klein last week told the California Stem Cell Report that CIRM has $160 million to tide it over through the end of June. He also said he is working on a private placement plan for CIRM funding, just in case. Klein said he has already identified some potential participants although he did not spell out details.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California lawmakers are wrestling with the budget crisis but have a long history of financial fumbling. At the heart of their failures is a daunting requirement that the legislature must pass a budget or increase taxes only with a two-thirds vote. That gives a minority extraordinary power. In California's case, Republican legislators stand in the way as they have for decades, chanting a mantra of no-new-taxes regardless of the state's needs.

Putting together solutions that will right the foundering Golden State will require compromise and policy changes that ultimately may affect such privileged endeavors as the state stem cell agency. Good arguments exist for steady funding of any sort of scientific research, much less stem cells. But good arguments also exist for steady funding of the state's now troubled institutions of higher learning, once an example for the nation, as well as many other laudable state programs.

CIRM must step carefully in the next few months to avoid becoming a symbol of what is wrong with much of California state government and its finances.

(Note: We have asked CIRM for comment on the issues raised by the disparity between its financial condition and that of the state. We have also asked whether Klein is affected by the housing cuts. We will carry CIRM's response when we receive it. Additionally, the San Francisco Chronicle carried a report this morning that the cutbacks would affect the "state's stem cell research center in San Francisco." No further details were provided, and we could not find anything to support that in the list of projects from the treasurer's office that we reviewed.) Sphere: Related Content

'Armageddon' and Klein's Salary

The new salary for the chairman of the California stem cell agency, Robert Klein, has caught the attention of Nature magazine, which headlined its article on the subject: "Salary for CIRM head despite deficit, Outcry as stem cell agency puts chairman on payroll."

Erika Check Hayden
wrote that CIRM directors approved the $150,000, halftime salary "even as the state plunges deeper into financial crisis." The term "financial Armageddon" also was quoted as coming from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had expressed "deep concern" about the possibility of a salary prior to its approval last Wednesday by directors.

Nature magazine says it has 377,443 readers worldwide, mostly senior scientists and executives. Sphere: Related Content

UCSF Snags $25 Million Stem Cell Donation

Despite the nation's financial woes, some philanthropists continue to pump out money with the latest coming from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for the benefit of UC San Francisco's stem cell laboratory.

Broad, who made his fortune in home building and insurance, popped for $25 million on Wednesday. That brought his total for California stem cell research buildings to $75 million. He previously gave $20 million to UCLA and $30 million to USC.

Erin Allday of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:
"The Broad Foundation donation, combined with a $35 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and a $16 million donation from Ray and Dagmar Dolby, means UCSF must raise another $47 million to complete funding for the new facility(see photo)."
Broad's contribution now brings him up to the level reached earlier this year by Lorry Lokey, founder of the Business Wire, who has funneled $75 million to Stanford for its stem cell work.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared for the UCSF announcement event along with CIRM Chairman Robert Klein. The donation garnered coverage throughout the state, including reports on television, which almost never covers the California stem cell agency. Google reported about 200 stories at different locations, including Taiwan and Australia. Most of those were the version from The Associated Press.

Richard Paddock of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
"Broad said that his foundation's investments have not suffered as much as other charitable foundations and that it would continue to meet its commitments.

"'I never thought I would say something like this, but we are blessed to be down less than 20%,' he said. 'So, we are going to keep on doing what we're doing and we'll look for better times.'"
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fresh Comment

David Serrano Sewell, a member of the board of directors of the California stem cell agency, has posted a comment on the item below, "Directors to Define Vice Chair Job...." One of his points is that the vice-chair election is not just about salary. I agree. It involves much more, including an as-yet-to-be-determined, clear expression from the full board about the scope of the job. We will have more on the subject of the vice chair's election in coming weeks. Sphere: Related Content

How Would California Stem Cell Backers Do It Differently?

California's Little Hoover Commission, which is looking into governance and conflict of interest issues involving the $3 billion California stem cell agency, has raised some interesting questions that it wants answered in writing.

The questions are the subject of a meeting this Friday afternoon of a meeting of the Legislative Subcommittee of the CIRM board of directors.

In a Nov. 26 letter to CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, Stuart Drown, executive director of the bipartisan state agency, said:
"We’d like to follow up on the discussion about governance that came up during your testimony, in which you agreed to submit additional written remarks in response to Commissioner Loren Kaye’s questions:

"Would you write anything differently in the initiative, particularly in the governance area regarding the structure of the board, the composition, the ratio of independent or outside directors to the interested directors, the appointment processes, removal, conflicts? Is there anything you would, based on your practice now, do differently?

"Are there further changes, since the 2005 adjustments, that you would make now?

"Given the Institute’s very large board of busy people, do you think the ratio of the authority between you and the board as a whole is appropriate?

"The Commission would appreciate your response by December 15."
CIRM said Klein scheduled the meeting of the legislative committee in order to receive input from directors before responding to the Little Hoover request.

If you are interested in hearing the discussion or making comments, teleconference location sites can be found in San Francisco(two sites), Sacramento, Menlo Park, Healdsburg, Elk Grove and Palo Alto. The specific addresses can be found on the agenda. Locations may be changed or added so check the agenda for the latest information. Sphere: Related Content

CIRM Directors To Define Vice Chair Job and Executive Evaluation Process


Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency expect to add some finishing details next week to employment arrangements with its chairman, Robert Klein, along with those of the vice chairman and the president.

On Monday, the directors' Governance Subcommittee, chaired by former Hollywood studio executive Sherry Lansing, will consider how they intend to evaluate the performance of Klein, CIRM President Alan Trounson and whomever fills the now-vacant vice chairmanship of the board of directors.

Last week, the board decided the position of chairman is a halftime job and agreed to pay Klein $150,000 a year. Klein, a multimillionaire real estate investment banker, said current economic conditions had compelled him to seek a salary. Klein had worked for free during the last four years.

At its meeting at UC Irvine last week, the CIRM board deftly sidestepped potentially negative fallout from from the pay matter. The issue had become somewhat charged after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed "deep concern" concerning the salary reports.

Under CIRM's salary ranges, if Klein were to serve fulltime, he would be entitled to as much as half-a-million dollars-a-year, which could raise PR and policy issues at a time when California is facing an economic crisis.

In an interview Tuesday, Lansing said Klein is entitled to fringe benefits provided to all state employees but that he will not receive performance awards or merit pay under the compensation plan for CIRM employees.

Actions next week on the vice chairman's position could also help to determine who is likely to fill that slot. Next year, CIRM directors will choose a vice chairman between two candidates: Art Torres(left photo), currently head of the state Democratic Party, and Duane Roth(right photo), who currently serves on the CIRM board and is head of Connect, a San Diego businesses development organization with close ties to the life science industry.

Lansing said that the subcommittee will discuss duties of the vice chairman and what his responsibilities are likely to involve. One question that may come up is whether the board should approve a salary for the job. CIRM salary ranges provide for $180,000 to $332,000 for the position.

Roth says he will not seek compensation as vice chairman. Torres says he will need a salary.

Teleconference locations for the meeting where the public can sit in and comment are available throughout the state: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Stanford, Sacramento, La Jolla and Irvine. The specific addresses can be found on the agenda. They may change or increase before the Monday meeting so it is good to check in advance. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 15, 2008

CIRM Panel to Consider Hoover Questions

California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein is seeking some help this Friday from members of the agency's board of directors in connection with the Little Hoover Commission's inquiry into the $3 billion research effort.

Members of the public will also have a chance to comment at several teleconference locations throughout California. The forum is a meeting of the directors' Legislative Subcommittee. The agenda item reads: "Consideration of request from Little Hoover Commission for additional information regarding CIRM governance, board appointment structure, and other policies."

We have been told that the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state agency devoted to improving the performance of government, posed questions on which Klein is seeking board input.

The current teleconference locations are in San Francisco, Sacramento, Healdsburg, Irvine, Elk Grove and Palo Alto. More may be added before the day of the meeting or even on the day of the meeting. The current listing and specific addresses can be found on the agenda. Sphere: Related Content

Business Snags $5.3 Million from CIRM

IRVINE, Ca. -- Six California companies snapped up $5.3 million last week in grants from the California stem cell agency, marking the first major industry funding from the $3 billion state research enterprise.

Up until the latest round of grants, only one company, Novocell Inc. of San Diego, had won a grant and that was for only $50,000.

However, the CIRM board did not approve business applications at the same rate as those from the nonprofit sector. Only one out of seven business proposals (41 in all) won approval last week compared to one out five nonprofit pitches(77 in all).

(The board put off action until next month on some grants so the figures could change when final action is taken.)

The six companies snagged about 26 percent of the nearly $20 million in grants for developing research tools and technology. The six also represented about 26 percent of the 23 grants that were approved.

CIRM President Alan Trounson said,
"These awards represent the entry of the biotechnology industry into CIRM-funded initiatives to accelerate progress."
Nonetheless, other companies appeared at the CIRM board meeting here to complain about the fairness of the review process, which they said was tilted towards academia. One company, DNAmicroarray Inc. of San Diego, suggested changes in definitions for "principal investigator" on grant applications that would reflect differences between business and the nonprofit sector.

Here are the companies and their awards:

VistaGen Therapeutics of South San Francisco, $971,558, PI Kristina Bonham; Fluidigm Corp. also of South San Francisco, $749, 520, PI Marc Unger; Gamma Medica-Ideas of Northridge, Ca., $949,748, PI Douglas Jay Wagenaar; Novocell Inc.of San Diego, $827,072, PI Evert Johan Kroon; Invitrogen of Carlsbad, $869,262, PI Ying Liu, and Vala Sciences of San Diego, $906,629, PI Patrick McDonough.

As of this morning, only one of the companies had generated a press releases about its CIRM grant, while at least some of the academic grant recipients were online as early as Wednesday with their good news. The release by Vala said, among other things, that its grant will be executed in close collaboration with laboratories at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research led by Vincent Chen and Mark Mercola.

Last week's meeting also marked the first time that CIRM directors allowed "extraordinary petitions" to challenge negative decisions on applications by the Grants Working Group. Three were received in time to be considered. Three others were also received but not by the deadline for consideration by CIRM staff and the board. The deadline falls five working days before the board meeting..

In each of the three cases, CIRM President Trounson said he could not find "compelling evidence" to change the score of the application or the decision of the working group. The full board can bring up petitions for public discussion but did not choose to do so.

Two petitions were filed by private businesses, International Stem Cell Corp. of Oceanside and DNAmicroarray Inc. of San Diego and one by the Salk Institute of La Jolla. Here are links to the petitions: International Stem Cell (filed by Jeffrey Janus, president, and William Adams, CFO), DNAmicroarray (filed by Babak Esmaeli-Azad, president) and Salk (filed by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, professor, Gene Expression Laboratory).

Adams also appeared before the CIRM board, citing "fundamental problems" involving the way business applications were treated. Some members of the board have expressed sympathy with the view that there is a tilt towards academia in the review process. CIRM is attempting to find more grant reviewers with a business background.

Reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a story on the business grants. Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy.com also had a brief item, declaring that CIRM had "opened its spigot for funding business ventures." Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Klein's Salary: News Coverage is Modest

IRVINE, Ca. -- Approval of a $150,000, half-time salary for CIRM Chairman Robert Klein generated light news coverage both Wednesday and today.

The San Diego Union-Tribune actually had a reporter, Terri Somers, on the scene here in Irvine, where CIRM directors met the last two days. It was the only mainstream media outlet to cover the session, which included more far-reaching decisions than salary matters, such as an aggressive plan to spend $210 million to push development of clinical therapies.

Somers' story quoted Klein, Duane Roth, who has been nominated for the vice chairman's job, and John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., on the salary issue.

Simpson, who has looked at askance at high salaries at CIRM, said the most important matter was not the money for Klein but the fact that board defined the chairman's job as half-time. Prop. 71 gives the chairman a host of responsibilities, some of which conflict with the president's. Klein also has very much acted as an executive chairman, including micro-managing details at CIRM, according to some observers.

Other stories were written by Shane Goldmacher of The Sacramento Bee and Ron Leuty of the San Francisco Business Times. Here are links to Leuty's story and Goldmacher's account.

The continuing light news coverage of CIRM is a sign of the hard economic times at the mainstream media, particularly newspapers. It also reflects the declining novelty factor at CIRM. The organization was created four years ago by voters and now is approaching the news value level of nearly all state agencies. And that is virtually nil.

Traditionally state agencies, with rare exceptions, are all but ignored by the mainstream media. Given the difficult decisions news organizations currently must make concerning deployment of ever declining resources (reporters), coverage of CIRM is certain to shrivel in the future. The exception would be a scandal or a major scientific breakthrough. Sphere: Related Content

CIRM Identifies Winners of Tools and Tech Grants

Here is a link to the CIRM news release concerning action by its board on Tuesday and Wednesday, including a list of the names of grant applicants approved in the $20 million tools and technology round.

Also included is information on the $210 million disease team round as well as the $60 million basic research round, which were approved by the board. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CIRM Issues Statements of Praise for Klein

The California stem cell agency has released statements praising California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein in the wake of today's decision by CIRM directors to pay him $150,000 for half-time work.

The following came from George Daley, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
"I am happy to say that Bob Klein has not only been the major driving force behind expanded funding for stem cell research within California, but he has been a tireless booster for stem cell research internationally. By the sheer energy and dedication to his cause, Bob is remaking California into the international center for stem cell research. In my recent visit to major laboratories at UCSF and UCSD, I saw first hand how the Prop 71 funding is changing science for the better. I have no doubt that in the future, when we look back on the prime drivers of the revolution in stem cells, we'll have to all acknowledge Bob Klein's profound contributions."
The following came from Richard Murphy, who served as a consultant and interim president for CIRM as well as a member of its board of directors:
"As a member of the ICOC and as Interim President of CIRM, I witnessed first hand Bob Klein's incredible commitment to the stem cell initiative in California. He brings together business expertise, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a fierce commitment to use stem technology to improving the health of people with incurable diseases. He has spent countless hours during the day, nights,and weekends bringing all the complex parts of this initiative together, and without him Proposition 71, CIRM, and California's world leadership of stem cell research would not exist. I feel privileged to know him and to have worked with him. Given his commitment to this cause, there is no question he will continue this work in the future, as CIRM encounters the inevitable challenges that will arise. California and the world are fortunate that Bob Klein has done what he has, and I am confident he will continue to work in the future towards the benefit of all of us."
Sphere: Related Content

CIRM Board Approves $150,000 Salary for Chairman Klein

The board of the California stem cell agency today approved a $150,000, half-time salary for its chairman, Robert Klein, who has served in that position for four years, working without pay.

Board members said that it was impossible to compensate Klein sufficiently for his contributions to the agency. They said the salary was based on what they believed was dictated by the nature of the position – not the individual.

The salary was approved on a unanimous voice vote by the board, which gave Klein a standing ovation prior to approving the salary.

The CIRM pay range provides for a salary as high as half-million dollars annually for the chairman. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week expressed "deep concern" about reports concerning the salary.

Klein, who owns a real estate investment banking firm, has said he can no longer afford to donate his time.

The only critical voice on the salary came from a member of the public, patient advocate Don Reed, who said it was not nearly enough.

CIRM board member Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, said the decision on Klein's salary was not related to a vacancy in the vice chairmanship position. That position is entitled to a salary as high as $332,000.

Two candidates for the job have been nominated -- Duane Roth, who will not accept a salary, and Art Torres, who needs one. That position will not come up until next month at the earliest. Sphere: Related Content

$20 Million Handed Out by CIRM and First Ever Successful Conflict Appeal

IRVINE, Ca. -- Directors of the California stem cell agency today approved $20 million for research grants to develop tools and technology for stem cell research, but not before overturning the decisions of reviewers on two grants.

The applications were removed from the list that reviewers said should be funded. They were moved to a category that will be considered next month. The action came as CIRM directors worried about the financial condition of the agency and of the state of California, which is facing a $28 billion budget shortfall.

CIRM Chairman Robert Klein assured the board that the agency had sufficient funds to operate at least through June. The agency derives its funding from state bonds. The cash that comes from those bonds cannot be touched by the governor or the legislature. However, the state has stopped selling bonds because of the nation's ongoing financial crisis.

The agency did not provide the names of the scientists and institutions whose grants were removed from the funding list, but their numbers are 1050 and 1062.

The board also approved a $1.7 million new cell line grant. It was the first-ever successful appeal of a negative decision by the CIRM Grants Working Group on conflict-of-interest grounds. As we reported earlier, the application was removed in June from consideration of the new cell lines applications.

CIRM President Alan Trounson told directors today that the applicant appealed the negative decision on the basis of a personal conflict of interest on the part of a reviewer. He said "circumstantial evidence" existed that the application "may not have been fairly reviewed."

He said that such allegations are hard to prove and that such conflicts "may not be recognized by both scientists."

Ed Penhoet, a member of the CIRM board, said that scientists often have strong disagreements and that should not be taken as necessarily involving malice.

CIRM has not yet released the names of either the recipients of the tools and technology grants nor that of the new cell line grant applicant Sphere: Related Content

Correction

The "$1.7 Million Grant" item on Dec. 8 incorrectly identified the chairman of the CIRM Working Group as Dana Orkin. His correct name is Stuart Orkin. Sphere: Related Content

California Governor Nominates Roth as CIRM Vice Chair

IRVINE, Ca. -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has nominated a San Diego biotech veteran as vice chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, setting the stage for a contested election between him and the chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune late Tuesday reported the nomination of Duane Roth(see photo), who now sits on the board of directors of the agency. He says he would not accept a salary, which could run as high as $332,000 annually. Art Torres is the other candidate and has said he needs a salary, but we have been told he thinks a figure of $332,000 would be excessive.

Roth is the head of Connect, a group that assists start-up tech companies. Torres is a veteran politico and former state lawmaker.

Somers quoted Schwarzenegger as saying in a letter to the CIRM board:
"'As I'm sure you already know, Duane is a hard-working board member who has long been an advocate for stem cell research and active member of the life sciences community. He is thoroughly familiar with (the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) and his elevation to the vice-chair position would promise a seamless transition."
Somers wrote:
"The governor first nominated board member Claire Pomeroy, vice chancellor for human health sciences at UC Davis and dean of its medical school, for the vice chairman post. But Pomeroy asked that her nomination be withdrawn, citing time constraints and a desire to avoid potential conflicts of interest because UC Davis programs are eligible for institute funding."
The vice chairmanship is currently vacant after Ed Penhoet, a multimillionaire businessman, resigned to take a non-paying position on the CIRM board. Penhoet has never taken a salary for his CIRM work. Nor has CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, also a multimillionaire businessman.

However, CIRM directors are scheduled today to act on a salary request by Klein, who says he can no longer afford to work for free. It could place Klein in an awkward position to accept a salary while the vice chairman goes unpaid.

The CIRM board is not expected to make a decision on the vice chairmanship today. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Torres Says He Needs Salary From CIRM

IRVINE, Ca. -- Art Torres, chairman of the California state Democratic Party, says he will need a salary if he is to serve as vice chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

In an item by Shane Goldmacher for Capitol Alert, the online service of The Sacramento Bee, Torres was quoted as saying:
"'I do need a salary because I am not a wealthy person,' he said, adding that 'what that compensation should be is up to the board.'"
The vice chair is eligible for as much as $332,000 annually.

Goldmacher also reported:
"He (Torres) touted his connections - he was first elected to the Assembly in 1974 - as beneficial for promoting the mission of the stem-cell agency.

"'That's over 34 years of relationships and experience that is important to communicate the needs of this mission,' he said.

"Torres is also building upon those connections to win the vice-chairmanship. (Lt. Gov. John) Garamendi's nomination letter states that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have all endorsed Torres for the post.

"Torres appears to have some support on the board, as well.

"'I'm keeping an open mind, but (Torres) is well-qualified for this position,' said David Serrano Sewell, who fills the patient advocate slot for multiple sclerosis on the stem-cell panel. 'He has the legislative, business and volunteer experience. Just as important he has the relationships with legislators in Sacramento and Washington D.C., built over 20 years, that will greatly benefit our mission.'"
Sphere: Related Content

$1.3 Million Price Tag on CIRM Chair and Vice Chair Compensation

IRVINE, Ca. -- An executive salary deal involving CIRM Chairman Robert Klein and a paid vice chairman, quite likely the man now heading the state Democratic Party, could cost the California stem cell agency something on the order of $1.3 million a year.

That includes $840,750 in salary and 50 percent of that figure to cover fringe benefits for both men. The $1.3 million total also assumes that both Klein and the vice chairman receive the top end of the salary range for those positions: $508,750 for Klein and $332,000 for the vice chairman.

Art Torres, head of the state Democratic Party, veteran politico and former state lawmaker from the Los Angeles area, has been nominated by state Treasurer Bill Lockyer to fill the vice chairman slot. Torres apparently has the support of two other state constitutional officers, who are the individuals who nominate vice chair candidates. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has expressed "deep concern" about the executive salary proposals, has not yet announced his nominee.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., said he has heard that Torres will expect a salary. Torres' term as chairman of the Democratic Party expires in April. According to what Simpson has been told, Torres would work for free until that date.

We have queried Torres concerning the matter and will carry his comments when we receive them.

The CIRM board votes on a vice chairman from among the nominees put forward by the state constitutional officers. A contested election, involving a candidate who would not accept a salary vs. one who would, could put Klein in an awkward position. His salary is likely to be approved by CIRM directors meeting here this afternoon and Wednesday, and it would be unseemly to have the multimillionaire chairman taking pay while the vice chairman does not.

The actual vote on the vice chairmanship is not expected any sooner than late January or possibly later.

Based on the last figures we saw for the CIRM budget, it does not appear to include funds for compensation for the chairman and vice chairman. Sphere: Related Content

State Democratic Party Chief Nominated as CIRM Vice Chair

The head of California's Demoratic party, Art Torres, has been nominated as a candidate for the vice chairmanship of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, also a Democrat and Torres colleague, offered the former state legislator to fill the post, which carries a salary range of $180,000 to $332,000. If elected by the board, Torres would take the position vacated by Ed Penhoet, who resigned to assume a non-paying membership on the board. Penhoet did not accept a salary.

It was not clear whether Torres(see photo) would accept a salary or continue in his position as chairman of the California Democratic Party should he be elected to the CIRM post.

Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the nomination this morning. She wrote:
"The institute's board will select a new vice chairman from a group of candidates nominated by the state's constitutional officers. Torres said yesterday that he also expect to be nominated by Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and Controller John Chiang."
In a letter Friday to CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, Lockyer said,
"Art has always been a champion for funding basic scientific research, including early funding for AIDS research. After leaving public office, he continued his patient advocacy serving on the boards of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and OneLegacy organ transplant foundation. As chair of the California Democratic Party, he led it in endorsing Prop. 71 and ensured the measure was prominently highlighted in campaign material to over a million California voters."
Torres had a 20-year career as state senator and assemblyman, representing an area in Los Angeles. His leadership positions in the Legislature included chairmanship of the Assembly Health Committee. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 08, 2008

Once rejected $1.7 million grant is resurrected

In "a highly unusual" situation, directors of the California stem cell agency this week are likely to approve a $1.7 million grant application that was pulled off a previous round after scientific reviewers turned it down.

In June, CIRM President Alan Trounson removed the application from the list of those being considered for new cell line grants. During a brief exchange at the June meeting of CIRM directors, Chairman Robert Klein said that "there was a problem with it, that it technically has to be re-reviewed." Trounson said he directed that the application be reexamined after he discussed it with the chairman of the review group, Stuart Orkin of the Dana Farber Institute.

There was no further comment in June by CIRM directors on the proposal, numbered 642-1 and labeled "derivation of new ICM-stage hESCs."

In the initial consideration of the application, reviewers raised several scientific questions and concerns about the proposal, according to the summary posted on the CIRM web site. No scientific score for the application was disclosed by CIRM, which considers scores for rejected proposals not suitable for public release.

One member of the Grants Working Group, Chad Cowan of Harvard, was barred from participating in review or discussion of the applicant because of a conflict of interest. CIRM did not specify the nature of the conflict.

The latest summary of the review of the application says that its "technologies and methodologies are not novel and not particularly innovative." But the review also said other aspects of the proposal are "laudable" and that it has "significant potential."

The application was given a scientific score of 80 out of a possible 100. No reviewers were excluded from participation in the most recent review of the application. Cowan is currently listed as an alternate member of the Grants Working Group. It is not known whether he participated in the latest review of 642-1.

The identity of the applicant and his affiliated institution is being withheld by CIRM. The agency makes a practice of withholding the names of successful applicants until the full board acts, although exceptions to the policy have come up. Names of rejected applicants are never released.

Last July, we asked Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer , for more information on the re-review, which may be the first such public case.

Our questions included:
"Is the grant being re-examined in connection with provisions in the grant administration policy that state that appeal grounds are 'strictly limited to circumstances in which a demonstrable financial or scientific conflict of interest' played a role?

"If not, what sort of additional information justified redoing the review?

"Did the information come to CIRM first? Who generally provided the information: the applicant or ??? Was it forwarded with or without a recommendation to the chairman of the Grants Working Group? What action did he take?"
Gibbons replied at the time that it was the "president's decision." Gibbons said,
"This grant was a highly unusual circumstance; something that has not happened before and something we don’t expect to happen much, if ever, in the future. We are not treating it as an appeal through the GAP. New information came to us, and the president, in consultation with the chair of the working group, decided that it merited sending the grant back to the working group for further review."
Following approval of the grant Tuesday or Wednesday, CIRM is expected to release the name of the researcher and the institution.

(Correction: An earlier version of this item identified the chairman of the Working Group as Dana Orkin. His correct first name is Stuart.) Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Klein Says He Can't Afford to Work for Free

California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein, a multimillionaire real estate investment banker, says he can no longer afford to donate his time to the state, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

His comments came Saturday in a story by reporter Terri Somers that said "market conditions" have led Klein to seek a state salary after working without pay as the chairman of CIRM since December 2004. The salary could range as high as a half-million dollars a year.

Somers wrote:
"He (Klein) said that in consideration of the current economic climate, he would continue to provide at least 15 percent of his time to the institute for free. He said his institute workweek has always surpassed 40 hours and will continue that way.

"Meanwhile, his financial firm has become 'my night job,' with daily responsibilities handled by its staff.

"Klein's salary has already been discussed by the institute's governance committee, but that figure has not been made public."
CIRM's directors will hold meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Irvine during which the question of Klein's compensation will come up. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger late last week wrote directors, expressing "deep concern" about the Klein salary plan.

The bottom end of the salary range for chairman stands at $275,000 and the top at $508,750. CIRM President Alan Trounson, who does not sit on the 29-member board of directors, receives $490,000.

Another member of the board of directors, the vice chairman, is entitled to a salary ranging from $180,000 to $332,000. That post is vacant after Ed Penhoet, another multimillionaire who did not accept a salary, resigned to take a non-paying membership on the CIRM board.

Somers wrote,
"Reportedly, Schwarzenegger will nominate a candidate who does not need to take a salary, while the lieutenant governor, treasurer and controller are expected to nominate a candidate who would need a salary, said Robert Klein, chairman of the state stem cell institute."
Somers is the only mainstream media reporter to write about the Klein salary issue. Meanwhile, Wesley Smith, a bioethicist at the Discovery Institute, commented about the proposal on his blog, saying,
"This smacks of the sense of entitlement and hubris among the big shots and well connected that is utterly ruining the country.

"Well, the CIRM shouldn't be Klein's personal fiefdom. Rather than pay Klein a half million, let's show him the door instead."
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Gov. Schwarzenegger Concerned about $500,000 salary for CIRM Chief

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed "deep concern" about a proposal to pay the chairman of the California stem cell agency as much as half-a-million dollars a year.

The letter from the governor to the CIRM board of directors comes as the state faces a $28 billion budget crisis and is cutting aid to the poor and elderly. Legislation was also introduced this week to freeze salaries of state employees who make more than $150,000 a year.

In the Dec. 4 letter, Schwarzenegger, who considers CIRM "one of California's greatest endeavors," said that he would soon nominate a candidate to fill the position of vice chairman of its board. He told CIRM's directors,
"I am also writing to share my deep concern about reports that you plan to consider compensation for the chairman and the vice chairman. CIRM has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money with great care, so I urge you to ensure that compensation for these positions is offered only if and to the extent absolutely necessary to implement its position."
It was unclear what specifically generated the letter. The proposal to pay CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has received little attention. Prior to the governor's letter, the only reports about it have come here on the California Stem Cell Report and on a link to our item on Capitol Alert, the online service of The Sacramento Bee.

If CIRM were a normal state agency, the governor could stop the pay increase. However, CIRM is enshrined in the state Constitution as the result of the ballot initiative that created it. The agency is immune to fiddling by either the governor or the legislature. Neither of those two parties can halt the constant stream of state bond funding to CIRM.

Schwarzenegger's letter also seems to reflect a lack of knowledge about pay at the Golden State's $3 billion stem cell agency. The chairman and vice chairman have always been entitled to a salary. However, Klein and former vice chairman Ed Penhoet have declined to accept pay since December 2004. Both men are multimillionaires. Penhoet recently resigned as vice chairman, but continues to sit on the board, which will vote to select a new one once the nominees are named.

For some months, Klein has mentioned that he would be seeking a salary. However, his current timing seems to be off, given the state's economic crisis. Deserved or not, high salaries and pay increases for government workers can trigger intense and hostile public reaction even under the best of circumstances. In contrast, much more significant financial issues can stimulate no response. That's because salaries are personal and easy for the public to understand.

Klein's salary proposal comes up at next week's CIRM board meeting in Irvine. CIRM posted the governor's letter as part of the agenda.

(The Niche, Nature magazine's stem cell blog by Monya Baker, carried a link to our report on the salary matter on Dec. 5.) Sphere: Related Content

Friday, December 05, 2008

Fast-Tracking CIRM Cash for Business

Biotech businesses could get a hefty financial helping hand under a plan coming up early next week before the directors of California's $3 billion stem cell agency.

The proposal would dramatically accelerate funding of grants to the private sector, delivering cash immediately on approval of the grants, as opposed to months later.

CIRM said,
"The biotechnology sector in California faces significant challenges arising from the credit crisis and economic downturn. Press reports suggest that venture capitalists have advised their biotechnology clients to cut costs in order to survive current economic conditions, which are expected to persist for at least the next 12 months. In order to achieve its mission, it is critical that CIRM partner with biotechnology companies in translational research, preclinical development and clinical programs. The financial stability of the industry therefore is essential to CIRM’s success."
Businesses would have to choose the fast-track financing to be eligible, but there seems to be no reason they wouldn't.

Generally speaking, however, fast-tracking can create a climate in which speed is favored over quality and thoroughness. CIRM's proposal could pose similar risks.

That said, if CIRM can do this for business, why shouldn't it be done for all grants. Time is money even in academia. Advancing the onset of research in universities also advances the results, which is what CIRM is all about.

The fast-track proposal is part of additional background information that is appearing on the CIRM web site as part of the directors' meeting agenda.

Here are links to other background material to be considered next Tuesday and Wednesday in Irvine.

Grant Review Group decisions on the $20 million tools and technology round and summaries of the proposals.

The latest draft of the CIRM grants administration policy for academic and non-profit institutions.

Three new alternate members of the grant review group: Andrew Barber, Richard Harvey and Steven Sheridan.

Still missing is background information on the salary request by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, a proposal to triage proposals for grants and the application by the International Society for Stem Cell Research for funding of a conference.

Two business days remain before the CIRM board meeting begins on Tuesday. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 04, 2008

CIRM's Klein Deserves a Salary

In February 2006, Robert Klein, chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, testified in court that he did not consider himself a state employee.

The justification appeared to be that he did not accept a salary and has not since beginning his state stem cell work in December 2005.

That appears to be ready to change. Next week, he is going to seek a salary that could run upwards of half-million dollars a year. The move raises anew questions about his role with his private lobbying stem cell lobbying group. It also raises questions about whether it is possible for him to devote sufficient time to his state responsibilities and also continue to run his real estate investment banking firm in Palo Alto, Ca.

As of this morning, CIRM has yet to post on its agenda for next Tuesday and Wednesday any supporting material concerning the salary request or the conditions under which it would be granted.

Klein holds his post as chairman as the result of a vote of the 29-member board of directors, who may want to establish some clear ground rules for Klein along with approving a salary. Technically he may not even need a vote of the board to draw a salary since he is entitled to one as chairman. However, it would be impolitic to take a salary without running the matter by the board of directors.

Klein's salary move has drawn some reaction from longtime CIRM observers. John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., told the California Stem Cell Report:
"If Bob Klein is working full-time as chairman of the ICOC(CIRM's board of directors) he deserves a salary. The question is how much. A sensible benchmark would be what the director of the National Institutes of Health makes -- $191,300. Round it off to $200,000. More than that is inappropriate and, in fact, would be outrageous in these economic times.

"Klein at his own choice donated his time since CIRM was launched. Californians owe him thanks for that gesture. However, it also allowed him to say he was not a state employee. If he takes a salary, he clearly is a state employee and needs to act accordingly in every respect. Receiving a salary should prompt a close look at Klein's non-CIRM activities and just how much time he spends on the job."
Jesse Reynolds, director of the Project on Biotechnology in the Public Interest at the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Ca., said,
"Chairman Klein's large proposed salary, making him the second highest state employee, is symptomatic of the CIRM's exemption from California's civil service laws - a provision that Klein himself wrote into the state's constitution via Proposition 71. What's gone less examined is that he quietly dropped his promise to serve only the first three years of his term, a promise made when he first assumed office to assuage concerns of potential power-mongering."
The news about Klein's salary has drawn little media attention. The only item we have seen came on the Capitol Alert section of The Sacramento Bee's website. Two readers filed extremely hostile comments in connection with the item.

Klein, who is a multimillionaire, is to be lauded for working without pay for the state of California for nearly four years. He has brought considerable energy and talent to a worthwhile endeavor. In decades of following California state government affairs, I cannot recall another case that comes close to Klein's example. If he will be working fulltime in his role as chairman, he merits a salary and should be well paid. Sphere: Related Content

CIRM Posts Timely Info on Research Standards Meeting

The research standards working group of the California stem cell agency meets on Dec. 12 to deal with the use of IVF embryos for which donors were paid and the use of somatic cells in state-funded research.

Already posted on the group's agenda is substantial background material along with other staff-prepared material clearly laying out the policy issues involved.

Interested parties have ample time to assess the matters to be decided and make their own decisions on whether to attend the meeting or send comments that can be considered next week. CIRM is to be commended for the early posting of the information. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Closer Ties to Industry Promised in Revised CIRM Strategic Plan

The California stem cell agency has quietly unveiled its latest plan on how it intends to spend nearly $3 billion over the next nine years, including a major shift into backing research intended to drive therapies into the marketplace.

The proposal, a revision of the 2006 strategic plan, calls for much closer ties with the biotech industry, "dramatic increases" in funding of potential therapies, expanded national and international collaboration, development of a "real-time financial reporting system" and more funding for interdisciplinary research.

The plan envisions an agency that is on the leading edge of human embryonic stem cell research and calls for considerable travel globally by its top executives and scientific staff.

The strategic plan update was posted on the CIRM website Tuesday as part of the agenda for next week's meeting of the CIRM board in Irvine, Ca. (We have been critical of the laggard posting of information on board agendas, but CIRM deserves praise for a timely posting of this important document.)

Much of the revised plan reflects the thinking of CIRM President Alan Trounson(see photo), an Australian scientist who has been in his job only since January. The proposal is subject to approval and changes by CIRM directors. Public hearings are also promised.

The plan states:
"CIRM places high value on interdisciplinary approaches. When scientists work in collaboration with engineers, physicians, chemists, mathematicians, and others to solve complex problems, they can achieve more than they could have working alone."
It continues:
"CIRM’s current leadership considers this collaborative approach so critical to the agency’s goals that it is recommending that the $120 million recommended in the 2006 plan to be awarded over three years be increased by 75 percent in the first year’s round of grants alone. It is anticipated that the scope of Disease Team Awards will be expanded to include funding for clinical trials and that they will be awarded annually (and more frequently if needed)."
On the subject of "working with industry," the plan says,
"CIRM’s president proposes to create an industry advisory body that will aid its executive to more effectively communicate and partner with the bioengineering, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Consequently, the science initiative outlined later in this document calls for a major increase in CIRM’s industry collaborations."
The proposal presents CIRM's assessment on the current state of the stem cell art, along with an all-in-one-place rundown of its view of its accomplishments.

The document includes plans for stepped-up hiring, particularly in the scientific area. CIRM has long labored with staff shortages. It is capped at 50 employees and now has about 30 after four years of existence. Failure to fill the allotted slots has led some CIRM directors to worry about staff burnout.

The revised goals appear to be ambitious, as did the 2006 plan. Here is a sample from its latest 10-year aspirations:
"CIRM grantees will have clinical proof of principle that transplanted cells derived from pluripotent cells can be used to restore function for at least one disease."
"CIRM-sponsored research will have generated therapies based on stem cell research in Phase I or Phase II clinical trials for 2-4 additional diseases."
"CIRM funded projects will have achieve sufficient success to attract private capital for funding further clinical development of stem cell therapies."
The plan provides more details on CIRM's communications and outreach efforts, which have expanded significantly in 2008. It also outlines the new CIRM website, which is scheduled to debut this month with new features targeting specific audiences from researchers to the public. It additionally lays out a plan for a series of town hall meetings.

The proposal is not a finished document. It has blanks where numbers need to be filled in and contains parenthetical comments that suggest additional material will be added. It is shy on assigning dollars to specific initiatives. The document's structure also does not allow easy, straight-forward comparisons to the 2006 plan.

Nonetheless, it is an important document, one that will clearly drive funding decisions during the next few years. Researchers in academia and the private sector as well as biotech business executives should pay close attention to it and suggest modifications in the next few weeks if they think they are necessary. It wouldn't hurt to express them directly to the board in Irvine next Tuesday and Wednesday but letters or emails can also be sent. Wednesday is probably the best day since approval of grants is likely to consume most of Tuesday. However, it is impossible to predict reliably the order of the agenda at CIRM directors' meetings. Sphere: Related Content

CIRM Directors Meet Next Week: $210 Million Proposal on Table

In addition to considering a salary for California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein, directors of the California stem cell agency next Tuesday and Wednesday will take up changes in its strategic plan and debate the framework of the whopping disease team grant round, which could total $210 million.

Meeting in Irvine, the panel is also scheduled to approve $20 million for as many as 20 grants to develop innovative research tools and technology.

The agenda currently has links to the revisions in the strategic plan, the disease team proposal and another proposal for a $60 million "basic research initiative." Not yet posted is background information on the Klein salary proposal, a "pre-application review" process, new scientific members for grant review group, an accelerated funding plan for grants and loans to business and a conference grant to the 2,100-member International Society for Stem Cell Research.

CIRM President Alan Trounson is on the board of directors of the society. Klein was a member of an advisory committee to ISCCR in 2007, according to The Niche, Nature magazine's stem cell blog. Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, is a member of the group's public education committee. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Salary for Klein? Half-Million Likely

California stem cell chairman Robert Klein, who has worked without state pay since late 2004, is now seeking a salary that could run as much as half-a-million dollars annually, making him one of the state's highest paid employees.

The request will come up at next week's meeting in Irvine of the CIRM board of directors. The agenda only states that the item involves "consideration of compensation of chair of the ICOC(the CIRM board)." No details were offered online. But Don Gibbons, the agency's chief communications officer, confirmed today that it was a salary request but declined to offer a justification for the move.

According to the CIRM salary ranges, Klein (see photo) is eligible for compensation as high as $508,750. Klein is a multimillionaire real estate investment banker and operates a Palo Alto. Ca., firm bearing his name. He forswore pay in December 2004 when he was elected chairman by the CIRM board.

If Klein receives the full amount in the CIRM range, he would become the second highest paid state employee outside of the University of California, according to salary information compiled by The Sacramento Bee. He would displace CIRM President Alan Trounson in that slot. Trounson earns $490,008. In addition to Trounson and Klein, Marie Csete, chief scientific officer for CIRM, is in the top ten earners with a salary of $310,008 and ranks No. 8.

CIRM's Gibbons has not responded to a query about whether Klein is seeking the full $508,750.

CIRM executive pay popped up in the news last spring, when CIRM directors approved a 23 percent hike in the management salary ranges, easily surpassing pay levels at the much larger NIH. At least one CIRM director initially balked but the boost was ultimately approved with little debate.

Twenty-three percent government pay increases generate an image and PR problem at any time. But given the Golden State's current $28 billion budget shortfall and cutbacks in education and aid to the poor and elderly, the timing can appear especially inappropriate. And Klein's salary request, deserved or not, is also likely to create such problems.

However, a bit of a precedent for the salary request popped up today in a story by Jim Sanders in The Sacramento Bee. He reported that 214 legislative staffers received pay hikes this year, despite the state's economic woes. One-third of the raises went to employees earning less than $40,000 yearly but 16 went to staffers making more than $100,000.

The article generated intense reader comment that reflected a certain hostility towards government pay boosts. One reader, identified only as Coaki, said, "These people are incredibly insensitive and stupid. Pay raises with a $27 billion deficit?"

At CIRM, the way for Klein's salary request was cleared when Ed Penhoet resigned as vice chairman. He is also a multimillionaire and co-founder of Chiron. Penhoet, who is continuing to sit on the board, was eligible for a salary, which he did not accept. Penhoet's resignation cited time constraints and did not mention the salary issue. But a vice chairman working for free while the chairman takes a handsome salary would create an awkward situation. No successor to Penhoet has been nominated. Sphere: Related Content