Three Bulls is on top of this, but I want to add a few comments of my own (as is my habit).
The story about Susumu Tonegawa sinking MIT’s attempt to hire Alla Karpova is not over yet. Sure, the Boston Globe (and the MIT News Office) report that MIT has formed a committee to try to get its neuroscientists to collaborate with each other better. But it looks like they’ve got their work cut out for them, judging by the email exchange between Tonegawa and Karpova, obtained by the Globe.
On the surface, the emails sound respectful, maybe even friendly. But, anyone who’s been in the snakepit that academic science can be should at least recognize that they are also consistent with menace. In one email, Tonegawa writes:
I enjoyed talking with you enormously. Although I do have a reservation about the use of the MIST technology as the primary approach for studying circuit mechanisms underlying the behaviors and cognition, I was very impressed by your intelligence, energy and engaging demeanor. I became fond of you very much.
With these positive things said, I do have a strong reservation about having you as a faculty colleague in the same building here at MIT at this time because of a serious overlap in research interest and approach: reward-driven learning and decision-making studied using genetically engineered rodents (and possibly primates in the future). We briefly discussed the possibility of arranging a collaboration. But this is complex because others (postdocs and students) are involved and your lab and my lab’s expertise are not really complimentary. Furthermore, for career development (tenure evaluation), it is disadvantageous for a junior faculty (you) to have a collaborative arrangement with a senior faculty member (me).
I put some further thought into it and talked extensively with my postdocs and graduate students. I also talked with my current collaborating faculty colleagues, and we all came up with the conclusion that if you set up a lab at the McGovern Institute, unpleasant competition will be unavoidable. Also, my postdocs and graduate students and your counterparts will be very reluctant to be open to each other about their current status of research. Management of these people and the research projects will become very difficult for both of us. What accentuates this difficulty is the still uneasy atmosphere between McGovern and Picower which you may have noticed.
An additional drawback in logistics is about the shared resources and facilities. When this building complex was designed, the McGovern Institute did not show much interest in the facilities needed for rodent research, focusing more on primate research. Consequently, I, as Director of the Picower Institute, took the major role in securing and designing rodent holding, behavior and transgenic facilities. For instance, there is a communal rodent behavior facility but it is designed primarily for the Picower Institute users, and is furnished with Picower’s equipment. I am afraid that accommodating your lab would be difficult.
Alla, as you are very aware, two competing labs in the same building is something we should avoid by all means. Some people who are promoting your arrival here are ignoring this basic principle, but I don’t believe that they are doing a service to you.
In summary, I am sorry, but I have to say to you that at present and under the present circumstances, I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague. That said, I admire your intelligence, talent and maturity. I am most happy to support you if you and I are going to work with some distance between us. Who knows, in several years our paths may cross again.
(Bold emphasis added.)
The most generous reading I can give here is that Tonegawa is a man who feels totally impotent to influence the research climate of his own research group and institute, as well as of MIT more generally. People are so competitive here! Gosh, that won’t work out well for you! And, fond as I have grown of you, I’m just looking out for your best interests, something those selfish people trying to hire you are not.
One can only hope Tonegawa is as protective of the interests of the next promising male neuroscientist MIT tries to hire.
Last time I checked, someone who had your best interests in mind might actually use his knowledge of how the system has worked to change things. Don’t want your postdocs and graduate students to have uneasy interactions with the postdocs and graduate students of a colleague? Set the tone yourself. Don’t want someone else at your school to do research that essentially duplicates you own? Attend to the differences in research questions and in experimental technique (e.g., the MIST technology that Tonegawa is unsure about) and communicate in such a way that you can ensure complementary research. You wouldn’t think someone who won a Nobel Prize would give up so quickly … unless he really liked the status quo and intended to keep benefitting from it.
Indeed, if Tonegawa was really just offering Karpova friendly advice, you’d think that ultimately he might say something to the effect of, “I’ve given you my read on the situation, but you’ll have to make up your own mind. If I’m right, it will be tough for you to get tenure, but you need to decide for yourself.” Instead, in his emails, he seems hell-bent on convincing her that the institute trying to hire her is made up of a bunch of idiots:
I suppose Bob Desimone is trying hard to convince you that there is so much support for you at MIT, particularly at McGovern, that you do not need to take the “Tonegawa and Picower factor” into your equation for your decision. I wouldn’t be surprised other McGovern people are sending you similar messages. Much of the enthusiasm is of course derived from your talent and charm. Who would not notice them. However, these people really do not understand your and my work, the technologies involved and their complexity. A substantial portion of their enthusiasm originates from the sense of competition and rivalry with the Picower Institute and the desire to duplicate a research program based on rodent genetic engineering at McGovern which, as you know, has already been established very successfully at the Picower Institute.
Their sense of rivalry and desire is so strong that they are not paying sufficient attention to your professional benefits and personal welfare. You are an unusually mature and interacting person. Nevertheless, it is a hard thing for a young person like you to establish a lab, particularly on a type of research program and approach where no senior faculty members in the immediate environment can provide mentoring as well as work support (facility, reagents, etc.). This is clearly the case at McGovern. Obviously, my lab and I can fulfill this role, but as I elaborated in the previous email, the closeness of your and our interest and the competition between the two Institutes would not permit me and my lab to do that.
Many Picower Institute faculty members are very upset about the way this recruitment process was bulldozed. These Picower people are seriously concerned that your arrival under the conditions will intensify the competition and ill feelings between the two institutes. These concerns are in fact shared by a substantial number of other members of the Biology Department.
(Again, bold emphasis added.)
It would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it, just how many people at the Picower Institute were upset at the prospect of Karpova’s hiring, and just how they got that way.
You’ll notice here that Tonegawa is essentially saying to Karpova, “Take my word for it, if you come here lots of people will be angry. And, the people who won’t be angry are blinded by their desire to compete with me.” He is also essentially saying that he will not mentor her (which is very different from undertaking a research collaboration with her), and that he may stand in the way of her getting the necessary reagents or access to facilities (including the rodent facilities) for her research.
If MIT’s committee can get this guy to be collaborative, I think their next project ought to be bringing about a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Anyway, go read Pinko Punko’s analysis. It’s dead on.