Monday, December 14, 2009

Science vs. Salaries: What Do People Talk About?

The $225,000 salary now enjoyed by Art Torres, co-vice chairman of the California stem cell agency, made the news again today.

This time it was in the San Francisco Chronicle, in a column by Philip Matier and Andrew Ross. The piece provides an example of the staying power of such relatively minor matters compared to the size of California's fiscal problems and CIRM's $3 billion research effort. The column also illustrates the difficult task facing CIRM's new communications push by its directors.

Torres' salary was brought up in connection with those of state and local government officials. Matier and Ross pointed out that San Francisco city officials are paid more than a number of state officials who have greater responsibilities, including the governor, state treasurer and attorney general.

“On the other hand,” they pointed to Torres' salary, noting that he received a $150,000 boost last week from his previous half-time position.

Matier and Ross quoted Torres as saying,
"I'm saving the taxpayers $50,000 a year by not taking my (state legislative) pension or having my health benefits paid by the agency."
Since the beginning of this year, the San Francisco Chronicle, CIRM's “hometown” newspaper, has carried five stories dealing primarily with CIRM, based on a search on its site using the term “stem cell agency.” One of the five deals with a conflict of interest problem involving a member of the CIRM board of directors. The Torres story does not come up in the search, but with it, two out of six Chronicle stories this year with a heavy CIRM component carry a negative spin on CIRM.

One cannot draw the conclusion that a similar balance exists at other newspapers. But it does confirm that coverage of CIRM has been very light in the Chronicle. That pattern is true around the state, based on our daily searches throughout the year. That means that positive messages can easily be overwhelmed in impact and staying power by negative ones. One rule of thumb in such cases that it takes 10 positive stories to neutralize one negative piece.

The question is: What do people talk about? They don't talk about arcane research results. They don't talk about CIRM collaborating with the state of Maryland. They talk about $150,000 pay raises for state officials.

Something for CIRM directors to consider as they begin their work with the new communications subcommittee.

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