Author: By Richard Saltus, Globe Staff

Date: 10/05/1989 Page: 43

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 MIT scientists.

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 firm offer.

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 cells.

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 this country.

"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 .

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:39:11 EDT 2000