Sunday, November 16, 2014

Comments From a Former Communications Director at CIRM

The following is the text of what Dale Carlson, who served the California stem cell as its chief communications officer from 2005 to 2007, had to say about its performance over the last decade.

He commented at the request of the California Stem Cell Report for a piece written by David Jensen, the publisher of this blog. The article appeared in the Nov. 16, 2014, edition of The Sacramento Bee. Carlson and others queried were told that it was likely that their comments would be severely limited in the piece in The Bee because of the space limitations of the print media. They were also told that the full text of their comments would be carried on this Web site.

Those queried were given generally free rein but were told that the print article would address such questions as whether the work of the agency would be worth its $6 billion cost(including interest), whether it had fulfilled the expectations of voters in 2004 along with discussing the achievements and shortcomings of the agency.

Here is what Carlson, a San Francisco publicist, said via email.
“Hard to know where to begin on CIRM. We were fortunate to attract such talented, dedicated professionals to the staff, particularly in the early days when funds were so limited, though they were a pretty beleaguered bunch by the time I arrived. The press coverage was dominated by the lawsuit. Seemed every story talked described the agency as ‘moribund,’ ‘mired’ or ‘stillborn.’ Most of them had come from labs and agencies that operated in obscurity and anonymity. They weren’t accustomed to ANY press attention, let alone being the subject of negative stories.

“They’d suffered significant self-inflicted damage as well, mostly because of unrealistic schedule pronouncements about when the first grants would be made, when BANs (bond anticipation notes) would be sold and bonds issued, etc., along with violations of public meeting and records requirements. 
“I loved the science and the scientists. I loved helping boost their confidence when dealing with reporters. I loved working with my counterparts at the recipient institutions. We were so strapped for resources that leveraging their capabilities and relationships was essential in getting our story out (and turning around our poor public image), and they were more than generous with their time and support.

“The many controversies that have plagued CIRM embroiled the board, not the staff with just one exception that I can remember: (Former CIRM President Alan) Trounson joining the board of a recipient company. Governance has always been CIRM’s Achilles heel. The board is ridiculously large and riddled with difficult-to-manage conflicts of interest. With so many members, it’s an easy temptation for individuals to assume others will attend meetings in sufficient numbers that there will be a quorum, or that others will provide leadership to deal with the agency’s ailments. But I’ve beaten that drum to death…

“It was a noble experiment. No state had ever funded biomedical research at that level. No government had ever used debt-financing to fund science. There’s no question that they moved the ball down the field, though the goal they set – clinical therapies – remains some distance away. California also has some magnificent new facilities and a large coterie of new talent, thanks to the taxpayers’ largess.

“When the bond funds are exhausted, it’s hard for me to see CIRM going forward with much (if any) public money. There just doesn’t seem an appetite in the Legislature for a significant appropriation or authorization. They may be able to raise private funds, though it may come with an insistence on governance reform. Time will tell.”

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