Published online 29 June 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.390

News: Q&A

Stem-cell boss urges communication

Incoming chairman wants public to know about California stem-cell agency's work.

ThomasJonathan Thomas.CIRM

On 22 June, the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in San Francisco selected financier Jonathan Thomas as its next chairman. Thomas replaces Robert Klein, who wrote and led the campaign for Proposition 71, the California state law that created the institute, and who played an huge part in all aspects of the agency during his incumbency (see 'Stem cells: The impatient advocate'). Thomas takes over during an ongoing state budget crisis; Nature spoke to him about his plans for navigating this and other challenges.

Name one thing that needs to change at CIRM and one thing that the agency is doing well.

The agency is doing a fantastic job of developing projects that are on the cutting edge of science, and going after a wide range of currently incurable diseases. The science side is a huge success.

But the public-communication and information efforts need to be dramatically improved. The agency has done a very good job of informing the scientific media about the projects that it has funded, but I don't think it has given sufficient attention to educating the public or the elected officials that oversee the agency. So I am starting a robust public-communication programme.

What will that involve?

I would like to have meetings at the stem-cell institutes that have been built through CIRM funding. We will invite the press, and the scientists will describe what they are doing. Anybody who sits through that will be very excited about what they're hearing and will understand the potentially transformative nature of the work.

You said in your statement to the board on 22 June that CIRM is in a "communications war". With whom is the agency at war?

Articles about CIRM unfortunately paint a negative picture about what's being done here. These articles miss the big picture, which is that there has been a tremendous amount of funding of cutting-edge research that stands to revolutionize medicine one day.

Name one thing about Robert Klein's leadership at CIRM that you hope to emulate, and one thing that you will do differently.

I plan to carry on as Bob did with great enthusiasm and great passion.

“Without a public-communication campaign, you have very little chance of success.”

Johnathan Thomas

There have been issues about the roles of the chairman and the president and the notion of dual executives and overlapping responsibilities. My belief is that the roles of the chairman and president were designed to cover 100% of the job needed for the agency to function properly, but that those roles were specifically meant to be complementary and not overlapping, and that is how I plan to operate.

My goal is to support and empower CIRM's president [Alan Trounson]; for him to deal with the day-to-day operations of the agency, and for me to handle all of the other areas required. I won't get involved in what he and his staff are supposed to do.

You will be paid US$400,000 a year. Why do you deserve a higher salary than the governor of California or the director of the National Institutes of Health?

The voters approved the maximum salary for the position to be a little over $500,000. [clarification: Proposition 71 did not state a salary for the CIRM chair; it directed the board to set the chair's salary. The board did this 2008. See 'Salary for CIRM head despite deficit'] The board felt that it was a job that would take up 80% of the incumbent's time. My feeling is that if there's somebody that you really want in the position, that somebody should be paid commensurate with what the voters approved. So 80% of $500,000 is $400,000, and I believe that salary is in keeping with voter intent.

Klein has said that he wants to go back to the voters in 2014 to ask for more funding for the agency. Will voters approve more money if CIRM has not developed any new treatments?

Without a public-communication campaign, you have very little chance of success. My goal is to have the public understand what a great amount of work CIRM is doing, so that they will view it as a major success — much like a young Silicon Valley — that is bringing industry to the state.

On the question of whether you need an actual cure going into a 2014 election: obviously, the goal would be to have something tangible like that. However, if we don't have that — and as we know, science moves at its own pace — I think that when the voters are informed of all the first-rate work that is being done by CIRM-funded scientists, they would be favourable towards another bond measure.

In addressing the board on 22 June, you said that the agency needs to consider "creative strategies" to finance the agency if bond financing does not come through. What did you have in mind?


CIRM has received close to $900 million in private donations above and beyond the money from private-bond proceeds. I think that the agency could put together a non-profit fund into which would go donations from individuals of high net worth or medical foundations. If it is very successful you might reduce the amount of general-obligation bond authorization that you would go for in 2014 or 2016.

You've said that CIRM should both engage more with industry, and continue to fund more basic research. How will you balance the two?

We've put out $1.25 billion, and we still have $1.75 billion to spend. Everyone believes that basic research is important and informs all secondary research that builds on it. We cannot lose that focus.

Industry has not received a large proportion of the funding: 7% so far. But industry will be a key component of the success of any product developed through stem-cell research. So we need to continue to build the role of industry in the whole programme. We've been continuing to refine our loan programme to make it more user-friendly. And we are going to make a very concerted effort in the grants working group to have some more industry representation among the peer reviewers, so that industry has a better shot at getting awards. 

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  • #60526

    I don't know if communication with the public is the key here, but rather transparency with where the money come from and where the money end up. Also, I think the chairman gets a little too much, I am pretty sure he could do very well with 300k a year and distribute the rest among the employees that are doing the real work.
    Jack at knol

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