Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stem Cell Star Search: Recruitment, Money and Conflicts

The California stem cell agency's proposed $44 million recruitment plan seems certain to draw some of the shining lights of the stem cell world to the Golden State, but it also opens a door on the high stakes bidding for research stars.

The proposal additionally shines a light on the built-in conflicts of interest on the 29-member CIRM board. At least 12 members of the board have positions at institutions that stand to benefit from the recruitment plan.

In response to a query, James Harrison, outside counsel to CIRM, said all will be allowed to vote this week on the proposal. However, they will not be able to vote next year on specific recruitment grants if their institution applies for a recruitment grant.

The CIRM recruitment packages could run to $4.5 million for six years for perhaps eight scientists, according an example provided by CIRM, but could be less or more. That does not include contributions from the recruiting institutions themselves.

Among other things, CIRM would provide up to $186,000 a year for salaries, $1 million for lab renovations and equipment (with an equal amount from the institutions) and $300,000 annually for lab operations, not including indirect costs.

To your average Californian, the amounts might seem quite generous. But according to one well-informed observer, they are not excessive although they could be construed as “lavish” for public institutions.

To help put the plan in perspective, we queried some folks in the field.

Ann Keissling, who serves on the CIRM research standards group and is director of the Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation in Massachusetts, said,
“After a brief review, this looks like an excellent plan. The approximately $4 million for a six-year commitment to a good mid-career investigator is appropriate, and will give California institutions with less robust stem cell departments the chance to bring themselves up to a par with other institutions.

“Over reliance on NIH-funding is weakening U. S. science for a number of reasons and those institutions with the greatest NIH-dependency will be forced to develop alternatives. This might be an excellent opportunity for good science to go forward rapidly that might languish waiting for federal funding. This would not only be a boon for California, but for U. S. biomedical science in general. A win for everyone in the long run.”
Dennis Clegg, who runs the stem cell program at UC Santa Barbara, said,
“Since many places have a hiring freeze, including UCSB, CIRM help in recruiting is very welcome. More support would have greater impact, but CIRM has to weigh its various priorities.”
A few years ago, Clegg recruited Jamie Thompson to the campus as an adjunct professor, putting together a $1 million package for him.

One California researcher, however, said anonymously that the size of the CIRM proposal seems to go beyond the current packages being offered or in place. The scientist also expressed concern about fairness towards researchers already in California.
“We should be giving those young researchers who we have been nurturing with CIRM money a chance to blossom rather than bringing in some of those half-tamed Harvard boys.”
CIRM said the program is modeled after the “early career” awards from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Hughes program is monetarily more modest, sprinkling only $4 million among 11 researchers this year.

One commentator said that the CIRM packages could be aimed at recruiting recipients of Hughes awards or other programs that remove their grants when the recipient leaves the original institution.

In terms of specific individuals, stem cell scuttlebutt has it that UC Berkeley is looking for a star and needs financial assistance because of the California state financial crisis. The names of Kevin Eggan and Amy Wagers, both of Harvard, have been mentioned in that regard. Eaggan has also popped up as a possibility at UC San Francisco as well.

Eggan serves on the CIRM standards group. Wagers is on the CIRM grant review group.

While the program helps academia, biotech businesses will be frozen out . Only academic and research institutions and medical centers will be allowed to nominate candidates. No reason was given by CIRM.

The proposal seems certain to have something of inflationary impact on the field and to trigger bidding wars as rival institutions compete. It could also stimulate upward financial pressure from scientists who might not be considered by institutions as meeting the CIRM criteria of being “highly likely to become world leaders in their fields.” They are naturally going to look at the deals and ask for more for themselves.

But the even the brightest stars are lagging behind others in the university firmament. UC Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford are paying much more handsome salaries in another field, $1.9 million, $1.3 million and $1 million respectively to their football coaches. Sphere: Related Content

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