California Dreaming: Money for Nothing in the Golden State
California, a left-coast state, shows its isolation from common sense in many ways, including the latest developments at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state’s taxpayer-funded institute for stem cell research.
Created by Proposition 71 in 2004, CIRM is spending $3 billion in bond money on the embryonic stem cell research the Bush administration declined to support. The promotional campaign featured actors Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve and promised to turn California into Lourdes, with miraculous cures for cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
A ballpark figure for the number of CIRM cures and therapies that have trickled down to patients is zero, as even their own scientists acknowledge. CIRM played no role in recent medical-scientific advances such as the construction of a new windpipe for a Colombian woman and the near-total restoration of sight to a man whose eyes sustained chemical damage in 1948. These were triumphs of adult stem cell research.
The prime mover of Proposition 71 was Robert Klein, a wealthy real estate developer and high-profile Democrat. He created an isolation ward, effectively off limits to oversight from the legislature. He also wrote the measure to make himself chairman, and in 2008 started taking a salary of $150,000 a year.
Now Klein is out and the new chairman is financier Jonathan Thomas, who will be paid $400,000, roughly twice the salary of the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), even though the NIH has 340 times more employees than CIRM.
Thomas, the candidate favored by Governor Jerry Brown, was chosen over cardiologist Frank Litvack, who would have accepted a salary of $123,000. The selection of Jonathan Thomas is not the first time CIRM has opted for a higher-priced alternative.
In 2009, CIRM board member Duane Roth, who has experience in biotechnology, offered to serve as vice chair for no salary. Instead of accepting that offer, CIRM made Roth co-vice chair along with former state senator Art Torres, who is not a medical scientist and once headed the California Democratic Party. During tough financial times for the state, CIRM duly tripled Torres’s initial salary of $75,000 to $225,000.
Top-heavy CIRM also has a president, Alan Trounson, who pulls down $490,008 a year, a good deal more than the $173,048 salary of the governor. While other California agencies are laying off employees and cutting back, CIRM has recently advertised for a public relations specialist who would be paid more than $200,000 a year.
“I passionately believe,” Robert Klein told reporters last year, “that there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially.” With its limited research focus, CIRM is unlikely to deliver the promised cures. Even so, Klein is beating the drum for more public funds, which is also the position of the new regime under Jonathan Thomas.
The Los Angeles Times editorializes that the hiring of Thomas “will go a long way toward assuring the institute’s extinction,” noting that federal restrictions on embryonic research no longer exist. That nixes the need for CIRM but does not diminish Robert Klein’s achievement.