Sunday, December 05, 2010

Klein's Maneuvers, CIRM's Reputation and Bernstein's

A Canadian scientist yesterday pretty much identified a bottom line on the attempt by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein to hand pick his successor at the $3 billion public research agency.

In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Alan Bernstein said the publicity about the machinations “compromises his international reputation and the reputation of the [California] agency.”

Bernstein knows because he was the man Klein tried to name as his successor. Bernstein, head of HIV Global Vaccine Enterprise of New York, referred to publicity in news articles here and elsewhere that reported a ruckus about closed-door meetings and possible conflicts of interest involving Klein's maneuvers.

Reporter Carolyn Abraham began her article by declaring the tale was a “strange story.” She added,
“In the small and highly specialized world of stem cell research, it is even stranger still.”
It was interesting enough to draw 278 comments from readers. (On Monday morning, the Globe listed the article as the most widely read science story on its site.)

The conflict allegations were first reported in the Los Angeles Times and referred to Bernstein's role as chairman of a blue-ribbon panel that reviewed CIRM's operations and found them “extraordinary.” The panel's report is scheduled to be discussed at Wednesday's CIRM board meeting.

In his first comments about the conflict matter, Bernstein told Abraham,
“There was no conflict of interest, the review was done before I was approached about this job.”
Abraham continued,
“He (Bernstein) said Mr. Klein contacted him only recently to ask if he would be interested.
“'I didn’t go after this job, I’m very happy where I am,' he said, 'pumped about the research in HIV prevention. …But what do they say – you can’t say no to The Terminator?'”
Terminator is a reference to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger, one of four state officials who can nominate a person for CIRM chair. The full CIRM board elects a chair from those who are nominated, although the board could reject them all.

Abraham wrote,
“In an interview Friday, Dr. Bernstein said he had received a personal letter from Gov. Schwarzenegger last week saying he was pleased to nominate him for the top job. But this week, he said, the governor wrote again with regrets that he would have to withdraw his nomination because of his citizenship.”
The governor's nomination of Bernstein was never released by the governor's office or CIRM. However, the lieutenant governor did, in fact, nominate Bernstein in a letter dated Nov. 30, but withdrew it later.

Late Thursday following the media flap, Klein for the first time said that Bernstein could not serve because of his Canadian citizenship. In a news release, Klein said “a technical legal requirement” barred Bernstein as a nominee. (We should note that an Australian, Alan Trounson, is president of the stem cell agency.)

Early Friday morning, we asked Don Gibbons, communications chief for CIRM, to point us to the law that Klein mentioned. We asked again late Friday afternoon. Gibbons has not replied.

The Canadian issue rankled some top scientists in Canada. Abraham wrote,
“'CIRM should be picking the best candidate for the job, not basing it on citizenship,' said Mick Bhatia, scientific director of McMaster University’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute. The number of stem cell researchers is relatively small, he said, and the number with international managerial experience even smaller. 
“'Then to have to fractionate that by the number of U.S. citizens – you’ve got to be down to a few zip codes,' said Dr. Bhatia, who turned down an offer to join the California institute a few years ago. 'For an initiative that has been so global in their outreach … actively recruiting scientists internationally … I’m sure this rule is hurting CIRM.' 
David Colman, the American who has headed the famed Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University for the past eight years, called the California law 'archaic and anachronistic.' 
“'In this day and age, it’s ridiculous,' he said. 'Today, you want to have international searches for everything. Alan is a smart, good scientist and a tested leader. He would have been great.'”

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