NOBEL WINNER BALTIMORE PONDERS OFFER
ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY WANTS BIOLOGIST TO BECOME PRESIDENT; SOME
ON FACULTY EXPRESS RESERVATIONS
Author: By Richard Saltus, Globe Staff
Contributing reporter Anthony Flint helped
in the preparation of this article.
Nobel laureate David Baltimore, a leading biologist and one of the nation's
most influential scientists despite being a target of a federal investigation
over his handling of a flawed research paper, is considering leaving Boston to
become president of Rockefeller University in New York.
The prestigious job was offered Friday to Baltimore, who had said
previously he was not interested in leaving the Whitehead Institute for
Biomedical Research, in Cambridge. Under his directorship, the Whitehead
Institute has become a renowned center of progressive biology since its
founding with a large philanthropic gift in 1982.
Baltimore, 51, is also a professor of biology at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, and is among several persons mentioned as possible
successors to MIT president Paul Gray, who retires next year.
"I wouldn't want to bet which way he's going to go," said a spokesman for
the scientist, who was in New York yesterday to meet with faculty members at
Rockefeller, a biomedical research and teaching facility. Baltimore has close
ties to the university, where he received his doctorate. The current
president, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, is retiring in January.
A number of faculty members at the New York institution have expressed
strong reservations about the offer to Baltimore, said Rockefeller biologist
Norton Zinder, primarily because of the complex and still unresolved
investigation of a scientific paper published in 1986 by Baltimore and other
The National Institutes of Health and a congressional committee have made
extensive investigations of claims by another scientist that certain
conclusions in the paper, published in the journal Cell, were based on flawed
data obtained by a researcher in Baltimore's laboratory.
Even after Baltimore learned of the problems, however, he declined to
issue a public correction. The investigating bodies have criticized the way
the matter was handled but found no evidence of outright fraud; however, the
probes are continuing. Baltimore, meanwhile, has not only defended the paper
but has launched a counterattack on what he views as a dangerous tendency for
government bodies to intrude on scientists' work.
"Unfortunately, my dear friend David Baltimore is tainted" by the case,
said Zinder in a telephone interview. He estimated that between one-eighth
and one-fourth of the Rockefeller faculty has voiced concerns that having
Baltimore as president could damage the university's reputation.
"There are people who say that he mishandled it claims by the whistle-
blowing scientist, that he was arrogant," said Zinder. Personally, however,
"I think he would be a superb president," he added.
The selection of Baltimore, Zinder continued, "is a sign that the
university intends to move ahead in an expansive way, and not to retrench or
hold the line."
Zinder said Baltimore was one of several originally considered for the job.
A Rockefeller spokesman, however, said Baltimore was the first to receive a
Baltimore, according to Whitehead Institute spokesman Alfred Kildow, will
have several meetings with Rockefeller faculty members over several weeks
before making his decision.
Prior to his receiving the offer Friday, but while rumors circulated about
the job offer, Baltimore told Whitehead scientists and staff he did not intend
to leave, Kildow said.
The decision is a difficult one, said Kildow, because as a university
president, Baltimore would likely be forced to give up much of his own
research on how genes control the immune system, on how viruses trigger
cancer, and on the disease-causing mechanisms of the polio and AIDS viruses.
Baltimore received the Nobel Prize in 1975, along with two other
scientists, for discoveries of how tumor viruses duplicate themselves inside
In recent years Baltimore has increasingly turned from the laboratory to
the podium, speaking out on issues such as the social aspects of genetic
research, biological warfare and how science should be regulated.
Calling Baltimore's possible departure a major loss for the biological
community, Phillip A. Sharp, director of the Cancer Research Center at MIT,
said, "He has an interest in shaping biological and biomedical research in
"Whether he feels he can do that best from the Whitehead or as president of
Rockefeller is going to be important in making his decision.
It is unclear whether Baltimore's chances of being named president of MIT
are strong enough to be a factor in his decision about Rockefeller. With few
exceptions, MIT presidents have been drawn from the engineering profession.
The formal search process for Gray's replacement has already begun, and a
faculty committee and an 11-member trustee committee are now at work, said
Walter Milne, assistant to the president at MIT. An update on the search is
expected at the annual meeting of MIT trustees tomorrow .