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California agency: Little cells, big salary

The big paycheck of the state's stem cell research agency chief is disturbing, particularly because it's a time when most state agencies are making radical cutbacks.

July 07, 2011
  • Research on stem cell use against brain tumors, being conducted in 2009 with the help of a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine grant.
Research on stem cell use against brain tumors, being conducted in 2009… (Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles…)

The new head of California's stem cell research agency, which has a staff of 50, not only makes more money than the governor, he makes twice as much as the chief of the National Institutes of Health, which has 17,000 employees. Does that make him overpaid? Not necessarily. But it does make the board that hired him remarkably tin-eared about politics.

Times staff writer Jack Dolan reported Tuesday that Jonathan Thomas, picked as chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in June, ranks high on the list of the state's highest-paid employees, taking home $400,000 a year. It always annoys voters to discover that government workers make more than they do, but what especially rankles about Thomas' big paycheck is that his hiring comes at a time when most state agencies are making radical cutbacks and when the institute itself is considering a ballot measure to ask voters for billions in new funding. The board of directors chose Thomas over a comparably qualified candidate who planned to spend less time on the job for $123,000.

We're not buying the justification from the institute, which was established in 2004 after voters approved $3 billion in bonds to fund research that could eventually treat such scourges as cancer, lupus and Parkinson's disease. It noted that only $150,000 of Thomas' take-home pay would come from taxpayers, with the bulk coming from charitable contributions. Money donated to a public agency becomes public money, and if it weren't going into Thomas' pocket, it would presumably be paying for research.

Yet it's possible that Thomas, founder of the Santa Monica investment bank Saybrook Capital, could earn his big bucks. California's rocky budget situation could jeopardize future bond sales, and if the institute seeks to bypass the regular market with a private bond placement, Thomas' unusual combination of financial expertise and an academic background in biology would come in handy. His extensive connections could help him raise money privately; among his ideas for the future is to create a nonprofit fund to gather donations from individuals and medical foundations.

Regardless of Thomas' qualifications, though, we suspect that his hiring will go a long way toward assuring the institute's extinction. It has spent $1.25 billion, and by 2017 the remaining $1.75 billion is expected to be gone. That has insiders discussing another ballot measure asking voters for more. The state's budget situation has worsened considerably since 2004, and the original political impetus for creating the institute — funding embryonic stem cell research that the Bush administration had blocked — no longer exists. Add to this a public perception that the institute's administrators are overpaid, and a future ballot initiative's backers will have a phenomenally tough sales job on their hands.

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