Twists and Turns in California Stem Cell Leadership

Posted by Pete Shanks December 14, 2010
Biopolitical Times
The Klein bottle has no boundary, where the surface stops abruptly, and it is non-orientable, as reflected in the one-sidedness of the immersion.
Something very odd has been happening at the top of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). It seems that Chairman Robert Klein announced his retirement, attempted to hand-pick his successor, sabotaged that deal, and then maneuvered to get himself renominated. Or maybe the real story is something different. In fact, the most important part of this apparently sordid tale may be that we do not know what has been going on behind the scenes at a public agency.

For as much as is publicly known, the place to look is David Jensen's blog, California Stem Cell Report, which proudly boasts of being "officially banned by California's $3 billion stem cell agency." There has been valuable reporting from the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Business Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and elsewhere, but Jensen, a former Sacramento Bee reporter and editor, is the resident expert. Well, not resident: he generally blogs from a sailboat in Mexico. But no one outside CIRM knows more about it.

Klein, who essentially wrote the 2004 Proposition 71, which founded the CIRM (he also contributed $3m to the effort), initially said he would be a short-term Chairman. A New Yorker article written during the campaign noted:

The chairperson's qualifications are enumerated in detail in the initiative. When I pointed out to Klein that these conformed to a remarkable degree with his own résumé, he did not demur. "I have to get back to earning a living," he said. "But if the board believed that for a limited period of time, eighteen to twenty-four months, I should be chairperson, then I would, if I could afford it."

In the end, Klein took on a six-year term, which is about to expire. (Initially, he served for free, then he took a salary of $150,000 for half-time work; the job can pay up to $529,000.) In the last couple of years, especially, there has been growing criticism of CIRM — one feels that Klein would say, with Louis XIV, "c'est moi" — for its dedicated funding and its opaque governance. CGS and others had objected from the start and followed up in detail [pdf]; the "Little Hoover Commission" weighed in forcefully in 2009. Klein counterattacked, set up a review of the agency headed by Alan Bernstein (almost entirely in private), and began floating talk about a new proposition for more funding in 2012. The hype about how "investing" in stem cell research might "trim California's health costs" is just starting again.

Bernstein did his bit, issuing a favorable report, and Klein evidently saw him as a worthy successor. Unfortunately, Bernstein was not a "patient advocate" (as required in the job description); no problem, folks at an "informal meeting" in late November were told, Klein would put him on the board of Americans for Cures, which would take care of that. Could he do that? Oh yes, that's Klein's very own lobbying group, which shares an address with Klein Financial Corporation.

But something went wrong: Klein suddenly discovered that Bernstein is Canadian (true; how could he have missed that?) and announced that this disqualified him from the position (almost certainly not true, but loudly asserted). Bernstein, who had not publicly applied for the post, felt the publicity "compromises his international reputation and the reputation of the [California] agency" (some of the CIRM board members seem to agree) and Klein ... surprise! ... is willing to step into the breech.

The saga is not over. The California State Controller, John Chiang, is "strongly" recommending that the CIRM board postpone their decision, scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday December 15th), and restart the nominating process; John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog emphatically agrees, with lacerating personal criticism: "Do not take Klein at his word." But at least one board member supports Klein [pdf], and he secured a letter of support from prominent scientists [pdf].

Finally, to add to the circus atmosphere, Klein isued a sudden, and unexpected, warning of a possible funding crisis. And scaled back his timescale [pdf]: "I would only serve 3–6 months." It seems that Klein now wants the job, at least for a while longer. Will he get it? Well, he usually does seem to get what he wants. When he figures out what that is.

Update (Dec. 16): The CIRM Board did re-elect Klein, who "will serve for up to 180 days pro bono to aid in the process of identifying a new chair." Simpson called the decision, which was nearly unanimous (Jeff Sheehy abstained) "a face-saving path for Klein who screwed up this election." Nature's blog suggested that Bernstein was still in contention, but this was apparently based on an old interview. The San Francisco Business Times noted that:

Now the process of nominating a new chair will fall to Gov.-elect Jerry Brown and incoming Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as well as Chiang and [State Treasurer Bill] Lockyer.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: