Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ticklish Topic: The $400,000-plus Salary at CIRM

Whatever the new president of California's $3 billion stem cell research effort is paid, the salary will likely trigger complaints that it is too much.

Currently the top end of the salary range for the position stands at $412,500. The previous president, Zach Hall, earned $389,000.

However, CIRM's Oversight Committee meets on June 26 to consider compensation for its soon-to-be-hired new president. The committee's public agenda does not list the amount being considered, but it certainly is not going to lower the president's pay.

The salary is ticklish because it appears to be quite large for an operation that has less than 30 employees. Salaries of public officials are always touchy because they are easy for the public to grasp. Is $10 million too much for a lab at UC San Francisco or a research grant to UC Riverside? The public has no frame of reference, so it is hard for them to become outraged. But everybody has a frame of reference for wages. High salaries also make good headlines for newspapers, whose historically underpaid reporters and editors are keenly tuned to such matters.

CIRM often uses the University of California as a benchmark for salaries and financial practices. But you may recall, the UC system stubbed its salary toe in 2005 with dubious pay policies. Nonetheless it is useful to consider some of the salaries at UC. We will use a compensation list for 2004-05 compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle because it is easily available.

As of that fiscal year, one assistant professor at UC Davis, Kee Kim, was paid $776,943. Two members of the CIRM Oversight Committee -- David Kessler, dean of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, and Gerald Levey, dean of the UCLA School of Medicine – earned respectively $540,250 and $537,416. Several persons whose main responsibilities are supervising young men as they play with balls easily topped those levels, with one at UC Berkeley, Jeff Tedford, topping out at $1.6 million. And those figures are all at least two years old.

If you look at the private sector, it is difficult to come up with useful comparisons. CIRM is a tiny agency (with fewer employees than directors) but it operates a massive research spending program. To issue the grants and administer them requires a high level of bureaucratic and scientific skill. To manage and lead those highly skilled CIRM staffers requires an equally skillful president. Not to mention the special adeptness needed to deal with the 29-member Oversight Committee and its chairman, who seems irresistibly drawn into the president's areas of responsibility. And not to mention the nearly uncharted research standards and IP waters that CIRM must navigate from time to time.

Complicating the pay picture are housing prices in San Francisco, which present a special problem for a president coming from out-of-state. The median price for a San Francisco home was $835,000 last month, up 8.4 percent from a year ago. And this is supposed to be a down market – at least nationally -- for housing. Keep in mind that price does not put you in the lap of luxury either.

The Oversight Committee seems heading relentlessly for a pay hike for its president. Its biggest challenge is to concoct a rationale that will mute the protests about the pay. A rationale that will sit well with Betty and Bob in San Bernardino, who are working two jobs and commuting (at $3.50 a gallon) more than four hours a day -- between them -- to pay for a very modest three-bedroom home for themselves and their two children.

One good way to start is to tell the public well in advance of next week's meeting what is exactly on the compensation table, instead of springing the figure at the last minute. Of course, if the amount is not defensible, withholding it may seem to be the best tactic -- at least to some.

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