New Chair for California Stem Cell Agency

Posted by Pete Shanks June 29, 2011
Biopolitical Times
Robert Klein swears in <br>Jonathan Thomas as <br>Chair of CIRM

After months of confusion, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) — the stem cell agency set up in 2004 when Proposition 71 passed — has elected a new Chair. Real-estate magnate Robert Klein, the founding father of CIRM, stepped down; his preferred candidate, bond financier Jonathan Thomas of Saybrook Capital, took over. Thomas will be paid an estimated $395,000 for an 80%-time position. For extensive coverage, see the California Stem Cell Report, from which much of this summary is derived.

The vote was close (14–11, with four absent), and reflects a split in views about the job. The alternative candidate, Frank Litvack, a cardiologist and entrepreneur, saw the job as part-time; he would have taken much less money and left day-to-day management to the chief executive, president Alan Trounson. Thomas sees himself as having a larger role, but insists that he "would not look to micromanage but would instead empower Alan to handle his considerable job duties." He sees a large part of his mission as winning the "communications war" and convincing the public that CIRM is a "huge success." His first move was to visit the BIO annual convention to spread the word.

Thomas has a challenge ahead of him, made worse by his salary, as the Sacramento Bee pointed out forcefully. (Strangely, the Los Angeles Times* seems not to have covered the story at all, while the San Francisco Chronicle buried it as the third item in a political column.) CIRM is also paying Trounson half a million and its vice-chair, former politician Art Torres, almost a quarter of a million; NIH director Francis Collins is paid less than any of CIRM's top management.

Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson calls the appointment of Thomas "a public relations disaster from which the stem cell agency will never recover." In a presumably pre-emptive move, the CIRM board also approved hiring a PR expert — at a salary of up to $208,250.

On top of that, there are reports that Klein will be named "chairman emeritus," which could cause some further confusion of authority. Klein's "imperious operating style" has been the subject of criticism ever since he tailored the job description to match his own résumé. His tenure has been marked by what the Little Hoover Commission called an "adversarial climate" to any kind of oversight. CGS called on him to resign in January 2006, and again in November 2007, from the job he once claimed he would accept for no more than "a limited period of time, eighteen to twenty-four months."

It's worth noting that Thomas was nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Treasurer Bill Lockyer. (Litvack was nominated by John Chiang, the state controller.) He's clearly well connected in Sacramento. Whether he can consolidate his own authority and develop broader outreach remains to be seen.

*Update: The Los Angeles Times joined the chorus of criticism on July 5th.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: