Thursday, October 14, 2010

Does the Stem Cell Agency Have Enough 'Bandwidth' to Do The Job?

SAN FRANCISCO – A blue-ribbon panel examining California's $3 billion stem cell agency began its second public session this morning with some of its members saying they are impressed by what they have learned so far and with some expressing concern about whether CIRM has enough “bandwidth” to achieve its goals.

Alan Bernstein, chairman of the panel and executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise of New York, described the agency as a “very exciting experiment in science,” one that the “world is watching.” Others also said they were impressed by how much CIRM has accomplished during its nearly six-year existence.

But panelists also said it could be difficult for the agency to do all that it is proposing. Richard Klausner, managing partner of The Column Group, a San Francisco venture capital firm, and Igor Gonda, CEO of Aradigm of Hayward, Ca., were among those concerned about CIRM's “bandwidth” problems. Klausner said he was “completely amazed” at what CIRM is trying to accomplish. But both expressed concern about whether CIRM had the necessary “resources” to do all that it proposes

Their comments apparently referred to the size of CIRM's staff, which was limited by Prop. 71 to 50 persons in addition to a 6 percent cap on its administrative budget. The agency has never had 50 employees although CIRM President Alan Trounson earlier this year warned that the quality of work was in danger because of the limit. Since then, the legislature has removed the cap in a new law that will take effect Jan. 1. However, according to CIRM officials, the size of the CIRM staff is not likely to exceed about 54 persons any time soon.

Although recruiting and hiring usually takes months, CIRM also does not seem to be making a running start on its opportunity to hire more staff. The agency has not yet posted significant numbers of new openings on its Web site. One key position, the new vice president for research and development, has been vacant for about 14 months. The post was supposed to represent a major effort to engage industry, which has been less than happy about its meager share of CIRM grants, about 4.5 percent.

The limit on CIRM staff has forced it to rely heavily on outside contractors, whose expenses are the second largest component in its operational budget. This year contractors are expected to cost $2.8 million, up 21 percent from last year.

This morning, the external review panel conducted a three-hour public session and then moved into a closed-door meeting. Today's meeting was consumed by presentations from CIRM Chairman Robert Klein and others. Public comment was called for with about 15 minutes left in the session. No members of the public offered comments, and only perhaps one or two were in attendance. Another one-hour public comment session is scheduled for tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m.

Klein and others offered an overview of the agency, its history and underlying philosophy. He noted that the use of bond financing (money borrowed by the state) was aimed at assuring long-term financial stability for scientific research. He also said the debt, which will extend over 42 years, will be paid by the beneficiaries of the results of the research. At one point, he noted that borrowing the $3 billion will cost another $3 billion or so in interest.

Scientist George Daley of Harvard, another of member of the external review panel, raised a question about whether efforts such as CIRM are a threat to the “paradigm” of federal funding of research through the NIH.

CIRM Vice Chairman Art Torres said that the results of CIRM research will benefit the entire nation. Klein said the California effort will put pressure on Congress to develop more stable ways of financing scientific research. Sphere: Related Content

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