Stem cell agency chief sticking around

The godfather of California’s public stem cell agency has decided to remain its godfather.

Robert Klein, who wrote the proposition that created the $3 billion California Institute of Regenerative Medicine and then became its chairman six years ago, had said he would step down from the post at the end of his term this year.

However, he changed his mind after the man he supported to succeed him withdrew his nomination following a flurry of accusations of backroom deals and a tarnished report.

The succession drama comes as the agency is considering asking for billions more in public funds to pay for more scientific research. The agency has already spent more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars in hopes of finding cures for some of the world’s most untenable diseases, from macular degeneration to diabetes. Californians created the bond-funded agency with Proposition 71 in 2004, in the midst of a backlash against Bush-era policies that banned federal support of new embryonic stem cell research.

The proposition lays out an unusual course for selecting the chair of the agency’s oversight board. The proposition requires the governor, the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and the state controller to each nominate a candidate. Those nominations were due Thursday, and the board was to vote this month.

Six years ago, Klein was the only nominee, so the board had just one nominee to vote on. Now, the same appears to have occurred again.

Klein had supported Canadian scientist Alan Bernstein to succeed him, and this week, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado nominated Bernstein for the position.

The nomination was criticized by board member Jeff Sheehy and the state treasurer because Bernstein has no experience as a patient advocate — a requirement for the position. Also, Bernstein had chaired a panel hired by CIRM to provide an independent review of the agency’s performance. That review, released just last week, was uniformly positive. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer declined to endorse him because of concerns about potential conflict of interest.

On Thursday morning, Bernstein withdrew his name from consideration, a move Klein said did not have to do with the controversy, but rather with his lack of U.S. citizenship. Several hours later, both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maldonado announced they would support Klein in serving a second term.

The end result took fellow board members by surprise, and several said they were unhappy with the course of events. Klein said for the sake of continuity and momentum, it was important for him to stay on until a replacement could be found.

“I’m very focused on working with the board and the constitutional officers with finding someone else for this position,” he said.

Announcement met with mixed reaction

The decision of Robert Klein to stay on as leader of California’s public stem cell research agency is raising eyebrows, even among his supporters.

And it’s not entirely clear how easy it will be to find a replacement for him.

In the hours after the unexpected announcement, several board members said they were surprised and not entirely happy with the strange succession drama.

Board member Jeff Sheehy, who has supported Klein’s leadership until now, said he was confused by Klein’s decision to stay on, and concerned that Klein feels it is his choice who should follow in his footsteps.

“It does kind of suggest that it has to either be Bob or somebody picked by Bob,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like state government.”

Dr. Francisco Prieto, a diabetes researcher who also sits on the board, said he also was surprised at the course of events.

“This is not an ideal situation,” he said. “I think it illustrates that the board, which has had a lot on its plate, probably did not pay as much attention to the succession as we could have, and now I wish we had.”

Finding a successor to Klein may not be easy. When Klein wrote the proposition that created the agency, he specified that the chairman should have a “documented history” in stem cell research advocacy, experience with state and federal legislative processes, and cannot be employed by or on leave from any prospective grant recipients.

“Bob wrote a statute that basically included his résumé as qualifications for chair,” Sheehy said. He noted that Klein’s chosen successor, Alan Bernstein, is primarily a scientist, and doesn’t appear to meet those qualifications.

Prieto said the board will have to “interpret that language very liberally” because finding someone of those exact qualifications, who is also qualified to run a multibillion-dollar agency, could be tough.

“He wrote the initiative describing a little too specifically the qualifications for the role of chair,” Prieto said. “I wish he had written the wording more generically.”

Cost of research

$3 billion: Bond dollars for stem cell research, approved by voters in 2004
$1.1 billion: Amount spent so far by CIRM
$4 billion: Amount the agency may ask for from taxpayers in coming years
$150,000: Klein’s current salary for “part-time” work as chair, though by many accounts he works full-time
$529,000: Pay a full-time chair could earn

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