Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Is $389,000 Too Much for "John the Baptist?"

Zach Hall demonstrated a felicitous quality this week after he was named interim head of the California stem cell agency: The ability to turn a phrase.

"I'm John the Baptist here to prepare the way, get things started," Hall was quoted as saying in newspapers in California.

"I will raid every place I can get to get the best possible people," Hall said.

When a public figure can crystallize issues, it goes a long way to ensure that his point of view is mentioned often and prominently in news stories. Good quotes are nuggets that reporters use to fashion stories. Skillful expression is also an important element of strong leadership and management, which is the task before Hall.

Little doubt exists that the stem cell agency has been hard pressed since its first meeting. Hall should boost the agency along, providing more guidance and hiring much needed staffers.

Hall's appointment dominated the news coverage of the agency's meeting on Tuesday. However, Carl Hall (no relation to Zach)of the San Francisco Chronicle focused his story on what appears to be the board's apparent failure to make research grants by May, its own self-imposed deadline.

Coverage of the Halpern-Lee petition, with its concerns about conflict of interest, openness and salaries, shared attention with the presidential appointment. That was to be expected, given the way news coverage works. Hall's salary, $389,000, provided a fresh peg on which to hang some discussion of the petition's concerns about salaries, which it contends are too high. Significantly reporter Paul Elias of The Associated Press, whose story was distributed on Web sites around the world, focused on that in his article.

The board did delegate the petition to Robert Klein, CIRM chairman, who should hand it off immediately to the new interim president. Based on the news accounts, Klein seemed to promise public hearings on the general subjects of the petition, but petition supporters said that was not good enough.

Here are the beginnings of the various news stories that appeared this morning with links:

Associated Press (reporter Elias):
"Even before neuroscientist Zach Hall was formally given the job Tuesday to run California's $3 billion stem-cell research institute, his salary had come under fire. Charles Halpern, a Berkeley writer who filed a legal petition with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine protesting some of its activities, complained that Hall's $389,004 annual paycheck to serve as interim president was too lucrative."

Contra Costa Times (reporter Sandy Kleffman): "The group overseeing California's $3 billion stem cell research program should adopt tougher conflict-of-interest laws and open up more of its meetings to public scrutiny, critics said Tuesday. Critics pushed for the changes as the fledgling stem cell group held its third meeting and named Zach Hall, 67, as acting president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine."

Los Angeles Times (reporter Megan Garvey): "Zach W. Hall, a University of Southern California neuroscientist and former head of one of the National Institutes of Health, was named Tuesday as interim president of the state's new $3-billion stem cell agency. The 29-member board charged with creating the agency voted unanimously to hire Hall, 67. The board has met three times and still has substantial ground to cover before the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awards the first grants for stem cell research, something Chairman Bob Klein has said he would like to do by May."

Sacramento Bee (reporter Laura Mecoy): "The stem cell oversight committee hired an interim president Tuesday at a salary critics said was too high, and it sidestepped a petition seeking salary caps and more open meetings. The panel voted unanimously Tuesday to hire neuroscientist Zach Hall as an interim president of the state's new stem cell agency, the Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It set his salary at $389,004 a year."

San Diego Union-Tribune (reporter Teri Somers):
"Despite years of experience and a reputation as a hard-core scientist, Zach W. Hall stepped into controversy yesterday when he was hired as the interim president of California's fledgling stem cell institute. Several watchdog groups questioned the $389,004 salary Hall will receive for the one-year job, which deal has him taking a demotion to senior scientific adviser once a permanent president is found."

San Francisco Chronicle (reporter Hall): "California's $3 billion stem cell program appears all but guaranteed to miss its own informal deadline of issuing its first research grants by May -- a goal that many had doubted could be met. Robert N. Klein, chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said after a daylong meeting of institute policy-makers Tuesday that he still hopes to get some money out the institute's door before July -- but it won't be in the form of research grants."

The San Jose Mercury News used the AP story.

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