Sunday, October 24, 2010

Coffey Not Committed to Moving to California Despite $4.9 Million Grant from CIRM

Last Thursday directors of the California stem cell agency awarded $4.9 million to an eminent British scientist after being assured by CIRM President Alan Trounson that his relocation to the Golden State was all but a done deal.

The $3 billion agency put out a news release in which CIRM Chairman Robert Klein hailed the move by Peter Coffey to UC Santa Barbara. Klein said,
“Recruiting internationally renowned stem cell experts such as Dr. Coffey builds a critical mass of stem cell leadership in California to drive the creation of innovative therapies for patients suffering from chronic disease or injury.”
The next day, the Financial Times of London quoted Coffey as saying he was not relocating to California. It was the second faux pas in CIRM's new, $44 million research recruitment program and raised questions about whether CIRM officials had a firm grasp on Coffey's status and their role in the touchy negotiations. It also raised questions about whether Coffey and UC Santa Barbara had met the terms of the grant application.

The RFA for the recruitment program makes several references to requirements that a recipient be a full-time employee at a California institution. Here is just one:
"The applicant institution will make adequate commitments to the PI including appointment to a full-time faculty position."
Friday's Financial Times article by Clive Cookson said,
"Although Mr Klein’s statement suggested that Prof. Coffey would be moving his base to California, Prof. Coffey said that impression was misleading. 'I am staying here [in London],' he said, 'though I can foresee more and more pressure from CIRM to up sticks and move there.'

"He said the $4.8m (sic) grant would enable him to set up a second laboratory at UC Santa Barbara, where he is already an adjunct professor, and accelerate his research."
Late Friday, we queried Coffey about the Financial Times story. On Saturday morning, we sent a query to the stem cell agency and UCSB. We told all the parties we would carry their responses verbatim when they were received.

Coffey has not replied. Dennis Clegg, co-director of the Santa Barbara stem cell program, said,
“UCSB is working hard to recruit Dr. Coffey to a full-time position, and CIRM has provided an invaluable tool to help us do that. However, as common sense would dictate, our negotiations are a private matter.”
Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief communications officer, said,
“By definition, these applications come from PIs who are not currently, eligible for CIRM funding. They are intended to be used as a recruitment tool by the CA institution. Once UCSB and Dr. Coffey decide when and how he will come to UCSB, CIRM will issue the award if Dr. Coffey's new position meets the requirements of the RFA. We would be delighted to see Dr. Coffey relocate to California on a full-time basis, but we respect the fact that he and UCSB will have to make that decision.”
At last week's board meeting at UCLA, Klein specifically asked Trounson about the status of Coffey's recruitment before calling for a vote on the grant. Coffey's name, however, was not specifically mentioned in keeping with CIRM's practice of withholding the names of winning applicants until after the board votes. Trounson assured the board that it was virtually certain that the researcher would be joining UCSB. The question of full or part-time work was not mentioned. Trounson said the applicant was “clearly one of the best scientists in the world.”

Last summer, the CIRM board put off action on Coffey grant. The agency said in August,
"The candidate being brought forward wanted more time to notify their current home institution.”
Coffey was quoted last month as deploring cuts in research in the UK. The Financial Times story said that if funding were not increased Coffey said he might have “to make members of his research team redundant and he would then succumb to the “enormous pressure” to move abroad. He said California was “very attractive” to scientists. The newspaper said the efforts by Coffey and other prominent scientists were subsequently successful in maintaining funding.

Last April, the board approved its first recruitment award. It was a $6 million inducement for Rob Wechsler-Reya to move to the Sanford-Burnham Institute in La Jolla from Duke University. He was identified as the recipient in an item on the California Stem Cell Report prior to the expected action by the board. Wechsler-Reya subsequently said he had not made a decision to come to California, which appeared to come as a surprise to CIRM officials. CIRM attempted to set a June 30 deadline for negotiations. Finally, in August, Burnham announced that they had successfully concluded a deal with the Duke researcher to come to California as a fulltime researcher.

In California, the chief institutional beneficiaries of CIRM's $44 million recruitment program are enterprises that are linked to members of the CIRM board of directors. Only academic and nonprofit institutions may apply. A relocation by Coffey to California would be a major international coup for the state and UC Santa Barbara.

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