Thursday, December 10, 2009

Stem Cell PR, Salaries and Mixed Messages

Directors of the California stem cell agency today created a special panel to come up with better and more effective ways to tell the good news about the $3 billion stem cell research effort.

That was shortly after it voted to triple the half-time salary of one of its two vice chairmen, Art Torres, to $225,000 for working four days a week. The move almost immediately prompted an irate posting on the Consumer Watchdog blog, which said that the salary sends a “horrible message” at a time when the state is chalking up record unemployment rates (30 percent or more in one county) and other state workers are facing pay cuts and mandatory furloughs without pay.

A strong case can be made that Torres is worth every penny, but that doesn't fly with folks who have been laid off and can't find work. “Wildly out of touch with the realities of a state mired in a financial crisis” was the comment from John M. Simpson, a longtime CIRM analyst, on the blog at Consumer Watchdog.

CIRM already has salary ranges that are among the highest for California's public servants, topping $500,000. One of the questions for the new PR/communications subcommittee to ponder is how to square that largess with public expectations that public servants should be lean and hungry.

Another PR/efficiency issue popped up at today's directors meeting. CIRM's other vice chairman, Duane Roth, a San Diego businessman, did a little arithmetic and pointed out that CIRM is training undergraduates for stem cell work at a cost of $50,000 per person. He said he would like to see more young people in the programs to lower the average cost.

CIRM Chairman Robert Klein likes to paper over these sorts of issues, citing what amount to notional ideas about the economic impact of CIRM spending, which is minimal considering the size of the state's economy.

The media and critics, however, seize on tangible, understandable details that make for sizzling headlines and irritate the men and women who have to work for 10 years before they see $500,000 in wages.

It is likely that Torres' salary will barely stir a ripple in the pool of sad economic news that surrounds California. But, while CIRM ponders how it can persuade the legislature to give it a pass on the 50-person staff limit enacted by voters, directors should consider the mixed messages that CIRM delivers.

The directors certainly should avoid stepping into another potential pile of financial unpleasantness discussed by Consumer Watchdog. Simpson noted that Torres' salary
“...also raises the possibility of another interesting dilemma for the board. Chairman Klein, a millionaire, initially declined to take a salary. After four years financial reality caught up with him and a year ago the board agreed to pay him $150,000 for what it also defined as a half-time job.

“How long do you think it will before he tells the board he's working four days a week and asks for a raise to $240,00?”

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