Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CIRM Media Coverage: PR Problems, Salary Issues and Bond Election

The California stem cell agency has picked up additional media coverage this week, including a Q & A on Nature magazine's web site in which CIRM's new chairman stressed the need for better PR.

Also appearing this morning was an editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune and, earlier this week, an item in a political column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

But first the piece in Nature, written by Erika Check Hayden. It consisted of questions and answers from Jonathan Thomas, who was elected chairman last week.

Here is the first question and answer:
"Name one thing that needs to change at CIRM and one thing that the agency is doing well.

"The agency is doing a fantastic job of developing projects that are on the cutting edge of science, and going after a wide range of currently incurable diseases. The science side is a huge success.

"But the public-communication and information efforts need to be dramatically improved. The agency has done a very good job of informing the scientific media about the projects that it has funded, but I don't think it has given sufficient attention to educating the public or the elected officials that oversee the agency. So I am starting a robust public-communication programme."
Hayden also asked about Thomas' $400,000 salary, which is part of the public relations problem facing CIRM. Nature wrote,
"You will be paid US$400,000 a year. Why do you deserve a higher salary than the governor of California or the director of the National Institutes of Health?

"The voters approved the maximum salary for the position to be a little over $500,000. (clarification: Proposition 71 did not state a salary for the CIRM chair; it directed the board to set the chair's salary. The board did this 2008. See 'Salary for CIRM head despite deficit') The board felt that it was a job that would take up 80% of the incumbent's time. My feeling is that if there's somebody that you really want in the position, that somebody should be paid commensurate with what the voters approved. So 80% of $500,000 is $400,000, and I believe that salary is in keeping with voter intent."
The parenthetical clarification is from Nature – not the California Stem Cell Report – but it is an accurate description of how salaries are set at CIRM. If a $500,000 salary had been included in the ballot measure, it probably would have doomed the initiative's chances at the polls.

Thomas also discussed a possible bond election, perhaps as much as $5 billion, to provide more funds for CIRM. He also briefly discussed creation of a nonprofit organization to help reduce the size of the proposed bond issue. CIRM will be making its last grants in just four years or so, depending on its burn rate.

The San Diego editorial said that the stem cell agency is "at its most critical stage since its creation." The newspaper wrote,
"And it is our guess that many who have followed CIRM would agree that the institute’s awkward overlapping management structure, the controversies over conflicts of interest, its internal and external politicking, and the lack of legislative oversight were not what they bargained for when they voted for it."
The editorial concluded,
"Stem cell research remains one of the most exciting and important fields in medicine. With a new era beginning at CIRM, it is our hope that headlines to come can highlight the scientific successes and not the managerial failings."
 The San Francisco Chronicle's Matier and Ross column on Monday reported the election of Thomas. The column said Thomas' salary will include $250,000 in private funds, which is incorrect. The funds are public. They were donated to the state some years ago by private individuals to be used as the agency wished. Outgoing Chairman Robert Klein and the CIRM board are trying to avoid public outrage at the salary by using the funds from the donors and portraying them as non-public.

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