Monday, March 07, 2011

CIRM Directors Moving on New Chairman and New Directions for Stem Cell Agency

Directors of the California stem cell agency are likely to settle this May on a new chairman of the $3 billion enterprise, replacing the man who has been the spirit behind the effort even before it was a gleam in voters' eyes.

The proposed timetable for election of a successor to Robert Klein, the first and only chair of CIRM, will come before directors at their meeting in Burlingame on Thursday.

Also on the agenda are far-reaching recommendations from CIRM management for new directions for the six-year-old, unprecedented state research program.

However, most attention is likely to be focused on the selection of Klein's replacement in a process that is proceeding more openly and orderly than last year's closed-door attempt by Klein to engineer the selection of his successor.

This week Klein offered his own view of the role of the chair in a new memo to board members, arguing for a person who would work on an 80 percent to 100 percent basis, presumably at a salary that could run to $500,000 a year. Klein, a real estate investment banker and lawyer, has worked without salary for most of his six-year term. In December 2008, the board designated his position as 50 percent with a $150,000 salary.

The directors' Governance Subcommittee last month recommended that the new chair work on an 50 to 80 percent basis, which could mean a salary in the range of $137,500 to $400,000. The subcommittee also recommended additional criteria for the new chair, which will come before the board on Thursday. Director Joan Samuelson added her additional thoughts for a global role for CIRM in a memo to the board.

The subcommittee backed away from making an immediate decision on delineation of responsibilities of the chair and president. Under Prop. 71, which created the stem cell research effort, the chair and president have overlapping responsibilities that have created friction in the past and generated criticism from the state's good government agency, the Little Hoover Commission.

Under the proposed timetable for selection of Klein's replacement, the board would provide the nominating state officials (governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and controller) with recommended criteria, anticipated time commitment and salary range. The officials would be asked to make nominations by April 11. An evaluation subcommittee of directors would then conduct closed-door sessions with candidates. At the May 3-4 board meeting, candidates would make public presentations to directors with a possible final vote following. Klein has said he will serve only until the end of June.

Selection of the new chair will also be influenced by board decisions on implementation of the recommendations of last fall's external review report. Prepared by a blue-ribbon panel, the report recommended improved ties with the biotech industry, expansion of CIRM's international links and a more active role in seeking out promising research areas.

Some industry executives have been been critical of CIRM. Biotech businesses have received a tiny fraction of the $1.1 billion handed out so far by the agency.

CIRM management's response to the external report called for closer ties with industry, including formation of a special advisory panel and possibly twice-a-year RFAs specifically targeting industry. Management also proposed that some translational RFAs could require partnerships between academia and industry.

The management response additionally recommended reaching out to involve research elsewhere in the country. The 12-page memo said,
"When entities with promising new developments outside California are identified, CIRM will encourage them to partner with California institutions and apply to general or specific RFAs. The challenge is to find ways to pull projects under CIRM’s umbrella while staying within the spirit and regulations that govern the Institute."
Some of the management language in its memo is tentative, rather than flatly declaring that this or that task should be done, and does not require up or down votes by the board, if any votes are required at all. How the board responds to those suggestions will be critical in shaping future CIRM action.

The external review report also recommended clearer delineation of the responsibilities of the chair and president. The management memo appeared to agree but made no specific suggestions.

The blue-ribbon report recommended improvement in public awareness of the agency and its work. In response, the management memo, among other things, recommended hiring a public communications officer in the office of the chair, who would presumably operate independently from the current communications staff, which is under the president. CIRM already has a large public relations/communications effort, including outside consultants.

The management memo mentioned an "office of science education and communication" within CIRM that would enhance its public relations efforts. The memo said,
"The amount of effort required to produce continually renewed content cannot be under estimated."
In addition to the Burlingame location, the public can participate in the directors meeting at locations in Irvine and Los Angeles. Specific addresses can be found on the agenda. The meeting is also expected to be audiocast on the Internet.

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