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Board Names Head of State’s Stem Cell Agency

Times Staff Writer

Zach W. Hall, a University of Southern California neuroscientist and former head of one of the National Institutes of Health, was named Tuesday as interim president of the state’s new $3-billion stem cell agency.

The 29-member board charged with creating the agency voted unanimously to hire Hall, 67.

The board has met three times and still has substantial ground to cover before the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awards the first grants for stem cell research, something Chairman Bob Klein has said he would like to do by May.

Hall, who has a reputation as a top scientist and tough administrator, said he welcomed the challenge, although he called that time frame “aggressive.”

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“I will raid every place I can get to get the best possible people,” Hall said after the vote. “This is a huge job, and there is almost no framework of people in place on the scientific side.”

Hall is charged with running the day-to-day operations and overseeing the science of the agency, which by statute can have no more than 50 full-time staffers.

He will be paid $389,004 for a one-year contract. In comparison, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, is paid about $175,000 a year. The highest salary at the Washington-based institutes is in the low 200s, though until recently scientists had been allowed to take lucrative contracts from private firms.

In November, voters approved the sale of $3 billion in state bonds to fund embryonic stem cell research in the state. Proponents of that ballot initiative said they envisioned California’s investment in embryonic stem cell research as a substitute national program. They believed the funding -- the largest investment by any state in science -- was needed because of the Bush administration’s strict limits on federal money for the controversial research.

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The agency president’s position is widely considered to be one of the best jobs in science at the moment, with the chance to shape policy in an emerging field with both promise and political controversy.

Hall, who has agreed to take the job temporarily, said he had been approached about applying for the six-year term (the board has hired a search firm to help with that job) but that he was reluctant to make such a long commitment.

“I’m John the Baptist here to prepare the way,” he said, “to get things started, to set up the organization ... to get it ready for the first-rate people who will surely be interested.”

Filling the position temporarily was a high priority, as board members also continued to deliberate issues including selecting a site for the agency’s headquarters, setting scientific guidelines for grant applications and finding scientists to review those applications.

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Hall also will serve as the senior scientific advisor to the agency, a role he would keep if a permanent president is hired before his contract is up. He resigned his position as an associate dean at USC to take the job.

Board members described Hall’s salary as at the lower end of the scale they were considering for such a role, with pay ranging from $300,000 to $600,000.

Klein, a lawyer who wrote the ballot measure, noted that voters had approved a “salary line that would push forward science.” He said Hall’s salary at USC, where he was head of a neurogenetics institute, was slightly lower, but said the raise reflected the responsibilities of running an agency.

From 1994 to 1997, Hall was director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where he managed 700 scientists and administrators and a budget that topped $740 million.

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Caltech President David Baltimore, a member of the board, called Hall “remarkable.”

“He is very cognizant of the complexity of a leadership position in science where you have responsibilities to the public as well as disease-specific groups,” Baltimore said. “I think we’re just plain lucky that he was willing to take this interim position. I can attest that the salary is commensurate with some of his skills.”

Hall said he is well aware of both the challenges and promise of the job.

“This is an extraordinary project from almost any point of view: biology, science, political, economics,” he said. “The idea of being on the ground floor to set up the framework is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

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