Back Scratching At Stem Cell Agency

DEC. 5, 2010


If anyone needed proof that the state’s $3-billion stem cell research agency is highly politicized, the Los Angeles Times reported this week that  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger re-nominated Silicon Valley real estate investor Robert Klein to continue as chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine  – but only after Alan Bernstein withdrew his name from consideration immediately following the Times story,

According to scientists with biomedical experience and familiar with the stem cell agency, while Bernstein was the panel chairman of the “independent” external assessment committee, it appears Klein was actively working to anoint Bernstein his successor. The Times story reports, “But his preferred successor, Canadian researcher Alan Bernstein, withdrew his name from consideration late Wednesday as the deadline neared for the governor to nominate a replacement.” I would have preferred if Dr. Bernstein had been able to be nominated, but it’s an honor to serve this agency,” Klein said Thursday.”

The CIRM appears to be a tangled web of special interests, going all the way back six years to the initial ballot campaign in 2004. And now it is reported that board members have conflicts of interest because of connections to the universities and research enterprises receiving grant money from the CIRM.

While there was virtually no Republican support for the 2004 ballot initiative, Ballotpedia reported two key Republican figures who did endorsed the initiative, and are still closely linked today: George P. Shultz, a former secretary of state in the Reagan administration, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, solid allies in California’s greenhouse gas and global warming law, AB32. Schultz and Schwarzenegger helped defeat Proposition 23, the ballot initiative, which would have suspended AB32 only until the economy improves and unemployment drops.

In 2004, the Prop. 71 campaign raised $34 million, and one of the key contributors was Robert Klein, now head of the stem cell agency. Klein gave a $3 million contribution to the campaign. Interestingly, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund also contributed $1 million to the campaign, and recently had representation on the “independent” external advisory panel from Dr. Richard A. Insel, Chief Scientific Officer for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Another CIRM report states, “Mr. Klein had served as the lead U.S. Senate patient advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s successful efforts in Congress to secure a $1.5 billion mandatory supplemental appropriation to the National Institutes of Health.”

One biomedical scientist called the report from the external advisory panel, “comically fawning” towards Klein and CIRM.

Interestingly, as soon as the Times story published, Bernstein almost immediately withdrew his name for consideration.  It raises suspicion that perhaps there was a little back scratching taking place – perhaps Bernstein realized that the gig was up.

The Times reported that Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado had announced Bernstein as his choice for CIRM chairman earlier in the week, “but questions arose about the propriety of offering Bernstein the job after he had chaired a panel of experts hired by the agency to produce an impartial report on its progress.”

Proposition 71, the stem cell research initiative passed in 2004 promising medical solutions for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, created the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The CIRM board has 29 members and has been headed by Klein for the past six years.

As if Klein’s re-nomination was not enough evidence of political hanky panky, the Times reported that Controller John Chiang also nominated former state senator and Democratic Party leader Art Torres to head the agency, after serving as vice chairman of the board.  Torres, the former state Democratic Party chairman, has been receiving a salary of $225,000.

Schwarzenegger said in a statement Thursday that Klein’s leadership has led to “advances in stem cell research that will benefit both California and the world for generations,” but did not offer any specifics about the “advances.” Other than publishing “584 journal articles,” documenting “more than 100 faculty-level recruits since 2006,” and handing out $1.1 billion to about 400 California scientists and research institutions, CIRM’s own scientists acknowledge that the agency has produced no cures of any kind. And any kind words or compliments left out of the advisory panel’s report, the CIRM manages to grant itself. “The systems developed by CIRM have produced results,” read a CIRM October status report, referring to the journal articles and the grants awarded, and referred to “these apparent successes.”

Klein’s role at CIRM was supposed to end this month. Instead, it was reported last week that he’s asked for an additional $3 billion in taxpayer funds for the stem cell agency.

David Jensen, who writes for the California Stem Cell Report, wrote in an oped last week in The Sacramento Bee that Chiang was in charge of the first CIRM performance evaluation, which Torres lobbied to keep “essentially accountable to no one,” quoting Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose.

Jensen’s Web site published the recently released list of the recommendations of the blue-ribbon panel concerning the California stem cell agency. And Jensen, critical of the re-nomination of Klein, wrote, “Only three newspapers carried a story as far as we can tell: the San Francisco Business Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee. The most complete story, however, appeared on Nature magazine’s web site, which has a much narrower but important reach. 

In the Nature piece, Elie Dolgin wrote that Klein said he would not insist on the full $529,000 salary the chair is entitled to, but continue with the $150,000 he is currently receiving for the 12 months that he said he will serve.”

Dolgin also reported that Torres, who has been nominated for CIRM Chair by Controller John Chiang, “probably will not challenge Klein but is interested in staying on in his current co-vice chair slot.” And since Torres has been paid $225,000 annually for his vice-chairman role on the CIRM board, it’s no wonder he won’t rock the boat.

Jensen appears rightly critical of Klein “and his maladroit attempts to manipulate the election of his successor,” at the CIRM. Additionally, “the CIRM had barred the public from nearly all of the review sessions  that were orchestrated over a three-day period at its headquarters in San Francisco.”

As for the “comically fawning” report, Jensen noted last week, that the panel had “high praise for the agency’s work,” but made no attempt to measure CIRM against the campaign promises of 2004.

Earlier this year, my Pacific Research Institute colleague Lloyd Billingsly wrote a story for The Flash Report about Torres’ salary tripling at CIRM from $75,000 to $225,000. In a response letter to Billingsley, Torres does not actually address his newly enlarged salary, but instead defends his role on the CIRM, touting the many health-related committee positions he held during his years as a legislator, as well as legislation he authored. “CIRM is an incredible state agency, with so many talented people. I am proud to be here and to continue my lifetime passion to improve health care policy,” wrote Torres.

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