The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is courting the top stem-cell official at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take over as its president.

James Battey, who since 2002 has coordinated stem-cell research at the NIH as chair of its Stem Cell Task Force, was approached by a member of the CIRM's governing committee in December after its current president, Zach Hall, announced his resignation (see Nature 444, 803; 2006).

Since then, Battey has been excused from all stem-cell-related work at the NIH, agency spokeswoman Marin Allen has confirmed. He remains in his position as director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland. “NIH is grateful for the leadership he has provided and is honouring his privacy,” Allen wrote in an e-mail.

Battey was considered as a candidate last time the CIRM was looking for a president, in early 2005 when the $3-billion institute was newly minted. It ended up hiring Hall.

The 14-member search committee charged with finding the institute's next president was scheduled to hold its first meeting by teleconference on 31 January. Two days earlier, CIRM spokesman Dale Carlson called any discussion of Battey's candidacy premature. “The search committee hasn't met. They've not retained an [executive search] firm. They haven't posted a job description,” he said.

We need to think about what talents and what skill set we need in the new president.

The search committee hasn't discussed a shortlist “with any real seriousness”, member Joan Samuelson, founder of the Parkinson's Action Network, told Nature on 29 January. “We need to think about what talents and what skill set we need in the new president. And we should be clear about that before we write a job description,” she said.

The search committee's agenda for this week's meeting includes considering the president's job summary, application criteria and a 'potential timetable' for hiring.

Battey is highly respected within the NIH as an able administrator who rarely makes trouble, but who will speak frankly when necessary. During the controversy over tightened conflict-of-interest rules at the agency, Battey said bluntly that if it adopted the stringent set of rules that was first proposed, he would resign (see Nature 435, 397; 2005). The rules were loosened before they were finalized.

Battey's absence from his NIH stem-cell duties became publicly apparent at a 19 January Senate committee hearing on human embryonic stem-cell research. There, Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, testified on behalf of the agency. She is now acting chair of the Stem Cell Task Force. It has also emerged that Battey will not be attending a meeting of stem-cell funding agencies being held in Singapore this week.

The CIRM was created by California voters in a November 2004 ballot initiative as a state agency dedicated to making grants and loans for human embryonic stem-cell research and facilities. But its work has so far been held up by litigation challenging the ballot. With an end to that litigation now on the horizon, “it's a crucial moment in our history”, says Samuelson. “The choice of a president can have a lot to do with how much we move ahead and how fast.”