Thursday, July 07, 2011

Hooha over CIRM Salaries: Cheap Shot or Legitimate News?

High government salaries are a tender, tender subject.

But are they legitimate news? An anonymous reader on Wednesday raised the question in a comment on the "public salary outrage" item on the California Stem Cell Report. The article dealt with a news story about the $400,000, part-time salary for new CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas.

The reader said, among other things,
"Media coverage like this has to be counted as something of a cheap shot."
The reader went on to say that the salary is not out of line with what medical school deans and top level researchers are paid.

The reader's remarks are somewhat ambiguous. It is not clear whether he or she is focusing on the Los Angeles Times story, the California Stem Cell Report's items on the subject or the public reaction based on comments on the Los Angeles Times' web site.

Let's assume that the main focus is the original Times story, which portrays Thomas' salary as excessive, comparing it unfavorably it to the much lower pay of the governor and the head of the NIH. The public reaction on the subject flows from that article by reporter Jack Dolan.

A case can be made that Thomas and CIRM President Alan Trounson ($490,000 annual salary) are paid at roughly the same level as a University of California medical school dean. Sam Hawgood, dean of the UC San Francisco medical school and a member of the CIRM board, for example was paid $572,896 in 2009, according to a Sacramento Bee database. However, CIRM's Thomas and Trounson preside over a staff of about 50 with a budget of about $18 million. Contrast that to Hawgood's staff of about 10,000 employees and budget of $1.52 billion.

However, those sorts of facts are somewhat beside the point when it comes to the news value of high state salaries. What makes them news is how they affect the public debate about government spending, perceived bureaucratic waste and ultimately the future of CIRM. Substantial segments of the California public exhibit an intense, visceral and hostile reaction to what they view as excessively generous compensation. In this case, it is a public that may well be asked to vote to give more billions to the stem cell effort in a few years. That's a reality, however unpleasant, that CIRM must deal with.

How the agency handles the issue is news as well. If CIRM cannot reframe the discussion, the entire campaign for the bond ballot measure may well center on CIRM salaries. The result could be "extinction" of CIRM, as the Los Angeles Times said Thursday in an editorial.

The California Stem Cell Report has discussed on more than one occasion both the nature of the public reaction to generous government salaries and the predilection of the mainstream media to zero in on them. Last July we wrote,
"What is important here is what the voters perceive as lavish or greedy – not the perceptions of recipients or the perceptions of those who approve the pay."
Last spring, the entire CIRM board of directors indirectly acknowledged the public relations problem with the salaries when it approved a dubious scheme to paper over them by channeling $250,000 in funds from private donors to Thomas' paycheck. If the salary is a mistake, the second mistake is trying to hornswoggle taxpayers into believing that they are not paying for it when all the funds come from public coffers.

To one former longtime newspaper editor, John M. Simpson, now stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., coverage of CIRM salaries is not only appropriate but necessary. In a statement to the California Stem Cell Report, he said,
"It's not a cheap shot to report what salaries taxpayers are paying their public servants. It's simply basic watchdog journalism. If this sort of reporting had happened in the mainstream media before the vote, perhaps the outcome would have been far different."
Simpson continued,
"Perhaps the (medical school) deans on the (CIRM) board weren't troubled by the eye-popping salary because they make so much themselves. They need to think like the average person when evaluating salaries. It's clear that a well-qualified candidate was available at a fraction of the cost."
Nonetheless, in some ways, the hooha about salaries is a sideshow. The money amounts to only a tiny fraction of the $3 billion that CIRM is handing out. Meanwhile, other difficult issues remain unexamined by the mainstream media including:
  • Conflicts of interest on the part of scientists who make, in secret,  the de facto decisions on grants,
  • CIRM's strategy, including whether CIRM has missed or is missing profitable areas of research, as well as management of its grant portfolio, including whether the agency has the stomach to pull grants from big-name, non-performing scientists and
  • CIRM's grant management system, which remains a work-in-progress, and needs close attention by directors, particularly with an eye to protecting IP and proprietary information from unprincipled biotech companies and hackers.
Simpson's complete remarks can be found here. The anonymous reader's comments about "cheap shots" can be found at the end of "outrage" item.

Here is an updated reading list on CIRM salaries. More information can be found by searching on the Internet used the terms "cirm salaries" or "california stem cell salaries."
CSCR Reading List: Compensation at the California Stem Cell Agency Sphere: Related Content


  1. Anonymous7:37 AM

    Do you think the induced pluripotent stem cell is not politics or has any science in it? Even news media professionals could tell some of the awarded stem cell grants had nothing to do with stem cell research, do you think those highly-educated expertized reviewers would not know, the oversight committee could not tell? Have you heard the political lullaby of into the politics of stem cell breakthrough? --- “with Shinya Yamanaka’s induced pluripotent stem cell technology, Larry Goldstein must be transformed into a baby now; with Sheng Ding and Deepak Srivastava’s trans-differentiation technology, Larry Goldstein would be able to switch among Directors with ease”. Science is not propaganda, it is the fact. To find out whether it is propaganda or fact, just need go to UCSD or San Diego Union Tribune to check if Larry Goldstein looks anything like a baby or Jean Loring. Even a whisper of fact can become as loud as song of marches.

  2. Jim Fossett8:50 AM

    As the anonymous commentator who made the comment that the coverage of CIRM salaries amounted to a "cheap shot", I'll sign my name to a reiteration of this comment.The coverage of CIRM salaries is a cheap shot calculated, and quite successfully so, to incite public outrage without providing any context or consideration of what other people doing similar kinds of jobs get. None of this context appeared in any of the original coverage and it should have.
    My original comment suggested that comparisons be made to salaries paid to medical school deans and faculty members. Somebody did go and look up what UC deans made, but argued these weren't really comparable jobs to CIRM's chair because they oversee large organizations with big budgets. Fine, then look at the faculty members, some of whom make more than their Deans. There's a data base here in New York of base salaries paid to state employees. I'm sure the same thing exists in California. In New York, there are 21 people on the state payroll who make more than Thomas'salary of $400,000. Seven are some kind of administrator; but the remainder are medical school faculty members. It should be remembered that faculty members generally have 10 month contracts, and can earn additional summer money through research grants. It should also be remembered that clinical faculty members can also make considerable additional income from seeing patients through faculty practice plans. Several of these folks are likely making more than their base salaries. Pay at private med schools such as Stanford for top faculty is likely even higher. I presume there's something similar in California, somebody should have checked this out.
    It should also be noted, as the Stem Cell Report has reported, that much of the pressure to hire Thomas came from elected officials who listed his finance qualifications as the main justification for hiring him over Litwack. Pay in the financial services industry is way above even CIRM levels, even for mid-level people. If you want those sorts of qualifications--and a case could be made that CIRM does need them---you have to pay for them.
    It's appropriate that salaries paid to public employees be matters of public record. But it's also appropriate that journalists report those salaries in a way that places some context as to what they're being paid for.

    Jim Fossett