Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Pinko Punko
    July 28, 2006

    I can’t decide what the worst part is, I mean scientifically if he had reservations about the entire basis of her research, her MIST technology (that allows targeting of particular neuron’s activity, in order to identify connectivity in the brain, and if particular regions of the brain have functions in certain activities), why would she be a threat to him. It seems obvious that he thinks her technology will be successful.

    It is hard for me to put into words how thoroughly worse the e-mails are than I imagined. I am very disappointed in the members of the Picower Inst. that have mortgaged their collegial values by signing the letter of support for their boss. I am so disgusted. Perhaps most of all with MIT Dean of Science Sibley, who in the face of these e-mails attempted to quash the situation with soothing words about “misunderstanding” and a patronizing take on the events. My perusal of the Picower Faculty is that they seem to be mostly hires at more senior levels, who knows if they had had a search, they might very well have hired her, with Susumu Godfather welcoming her to the nurturing family.

    If MIT has an ounce of integrity they won’t sweep this under the rug. Sadly, these guys can get away with anything, the power dynamic is so skewed.

  2. #2 drew
    July 28, 2006

    It is behavior like this that made not apply to MIT for graduate school. I had heard stories from other professors and grad students about this kind of activity.

  3. #3 Pinko Punko
    July 28, 2006

    Oh, this part is great:

    “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.”

    Shorter Nobel cobag: “you will be responsible for increased acrimony on campus by your mere existence here. I speak for the entire faculty of my institute.” I cannot imagine him exerting more rhetorical pressure than he does here. This is really obscene. I am not being hyperbolic. There are many tiny obscenities in our fields, this is a larger version of very small, petty behavior. MIT should be embarrassed.

  4. #4 Bill Hooker
    July 28, 2006

    for career development (tenure evaluation), it is disadvantageous for a junior faculty (you) to have a collaborative arrangement with a senior faculty member (me).

    Uh, on what planet? This is exactly backwards, and anyone who is embarking on an academic career knows it. To have close research ties with one (of, presumably, many) senior faculty is — or should be — the ideal situation for a junior faculty member.

    It’s a key sentence. Tonegawa knows that Karpova knows it’s exactly backwards; what he’s saying — and between two academics it’s as clear as my translation — is “if you come here I will do my best to shut your career down”.

    The only thing I will say in Tonegawa’s defense is that a truly accomplished ratfucker would have encouraged her hire and *then* dropped the hammer.

  5. #5 Bill Hooker
    July 28, 2006

    Also, what is up with two institutes at the same university being so competitive? Whoever is in charge at MIT should consider replacing the directors of both.

  6. #6 BilZ0r
    July 28, 2006

    I don’t quite get your point.

    I wouldn’t want someone who was doing the exact same thing as I am in the same country, let alone in the same institution. They’ll be competing for grants, students, lab space you name it. A successful collaboration is not made between two labs with exactly the same skills, but ones with complementary skills.

    I would not want my students being open with another lab that has the exact same skills; that’s a good way of getting your ideas pinched.

    Even if both of those letters are simpley spin/lies, so what? Most “no thanks” statements are: “It’s not you, it’s me”.

  7. #7 anon
    July 29, 2006

    They did Karpova a HUGE favor by keeping her out of this snakepit. And now where is she? At HHMI, one of the richest biomedical research labs in the world. She’s going to be fine. It’s MIT that has mud on its face. Good luck hiring someone else into that department. Yuck!

  8. #8 per
    July 29, 2006

    two folks working on the same thing, using similar methods at the same place ? At the very least, it is a reasonable proposition that someone’s work is too close to your own area; it is legitimate to have two groups from different institutions in competition, but would anyone believe that they were in competition if they were in the same building ?

    >Tonegawa is as protective of the interests of the next promising male …

    oh, that’s okay, it must be sexism

    per

  9. #9 apalazzo
    July 29, 2006

    Well for those of you not in Boston, MIT and Harvard are full of this crap … too many big egos. I’ve seen so many of these fights here on Longwood, that I’m not that surprised by this whole affair.

  10. #10 Julie Stahlhut
    July 29, 2006

    As an MIT alumna (undergrad), I’m ashamed of my alma mater for the first time. And, if the administration doesn’t do something to remedy the situation, I’ll remember this clearly the next time MIT asks me for a donation — and will tell them so.

    We don’t know whether this would have happened to a male researcher, but the mere fact that a senior researcher intimidated a junior into declining a job offer is sickening. (I suspect that the words and approach would have been less faux-paternal and more succinct if the target had been male, but the overall effect would have been the same.) This is bad, bad, bad — a black eye and a severe embarrassment for MIT.

    Incidentally, I used to work in administration at the other “big university up Chuck from MIT”. If a similar situation of “competition between two institutes” occurred there, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, considering that the university at the time had two different computer support organizations that operated in open competition with each other.

  11. #11 Abel Pharmboy
    July 29, 2006

    Anon: not only is Dr Karpova a HHMI investigator, but she’s at their new Janelia Farm Research Campus, perhaps one of the greatest, most supportive, and visionary places in the US to launch an independent biomedical research career. I hope and pray that Tonegawa lives long enough to watch Karpova compete him into the ground. I predict that she will eclipse his accomplishments with a degree of character and humanity he appears to lack and, moreover, forgets that he was the beneficiary of when he was a junior investigator.

    Dr Hooker: I love ya, man – “ratfucker” – heh-heh, indeed.

  12. #12 Deepak
    July 29, 2006

    This is one reason I decided not to go into academics. Academics is not, or rather should not be, about competition. The whole grant and funding environment leads to such behaviour. At least in industry, no one makes any pretense otherwise (in fact, in many cases they are more congenial).

  13. #13 Pinko Punko
    July 29, 2006

    bilz0r kind of misses the point. We are talking about the study of learning and memory. this is a HUGE area. Dr. Karpova will be using her MIST approach that she developed. Tonegawa seems to be disingenuous when he claims to have reservations about it, if he also views her as such a comepetitor. Let me try to explain: the power dynamic here is massively in his favor, she doesn’t have a lab yet, she has no one working for her, and he still brings out all the stops. It is not enough for him to say “listen, we just have similar goals, I think we shouldn’t work together.” He didn’t just do that, he made up 50 other reasons, and included several variety of threat. These are no-nos. What you miss here is a particular flavor of scientific arrogance, and it stems from perhaps extreme competition. There are egos so big in play here that he can’t even agree to work apart from here, yet keep communication open. Someone this competitive behaves almost in a paranoid fashion, because he views that everyone else would act like he would, and not as the rest of the rational world would. It is somewhat hard for me to explain. Being in the field, the between the lines communication is incredibly obvious. Those taking the contrarian stance, defending Tonegawa that is, I just have to say you are completely missing how ridiculous this situation is. You’ll just have to take that on face value, if my words have been unable to convince you.

  14. #14 David Harmon
    July 29, 2006

    Smarmy menace aside, I suspect the real point will be that this fellow has taken it on himself to unilaterally override the decisions of whoever was supposed to be choosing new hires. If he had proper authority or influence on the matter, he would presumably have used it. (And in that case, he’ll now be considered “insubordinate” as well.) Top scientist or no, that’s not going to go over well with the honchos at MIT.

  15. #15 greensmile
    July 29, 2006

    tiny comfort: I don’t note any overt gender discrimination in Tonagawa’s emails. But other than that they drip with the poison of professional jealousy. Age discrimination? “…it is a hard thing for a young person like you…” My oh my, wasn’t this guy’s pride hurting?

  16. #16 MaryContrary
    July 29, 2006

    This post reminded me of a very funny one by Assclownopolis, a chemical engineer, called “Early Warning”:
    http://assclownopolis.blogspot.com/2006/05/early-warning.html.

    Whether it’s sexism, toxic politics, assclowns, or a combination of the three, Karpova is surely sitting there thinking to herself, “THANK GOD I dodged the bullet on THAT one.” Who would ever want to work in a department that screwed up?? As Assclownopolis puts it, “If they are eager to screw a complete stranger, just imagine what they do to you once you sign on with them.”

  17. #17 Hank Roberts
    July 30, 2006

    You realize Doonesbury’s daughter has just accepted MIT and is going there in the fall? This should be really amusing if Trudeau picks up on it.

    http://images.ucomics.com/comics/db/2006/db060722.gif

  18. #18 BilZ0r
    July 30, 2006

    Obviously I am missing the point Pinko Punko, not only in the OP, but in your post too.

    Who cares if the guy is paranoid, most big PIs are. It’s not illegal, or immoral. It’s a personality flaw.

  19. #19 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 30, 2006

    For the record, I don’t know that there’s sexism behind Tonegawa’s behavior. I was suggesting something we might look at (his behavior toward male rising stars in neurology that MIT is trying to recruit) as a way to get more relevant data on this.

    But the absence of sexism here wouldn’t necessarily mean that he wasn’t being a jerk.

  20. #20 per
    July 30, 2006

    I think Bilz0r is spot on. This is usual behaviour for academic departments, particularly for famous PIs who pull in loads of money and regularly throw their weight around.

    I also think Bill Hooker’s comment is insightful.
    >a truly accomplished ratfucker would have encouraged her hire and *then* dropped the hammer.

    If the theory is that T is being evil, hooker is just right to say that the most difficult thing for K is to be hired, and then facing the difficulty of having to compete against a hostile Nobel prizewinner in the same institution. Everyone agrees she will do better at HHMI; so what is the problem ?

    yours
    per

  21. #21 mdhatter
    July 30, 2006

    (visitor from 3B! land)

    “The only thing I will say in Tonegawa’s defense is that a truly accomplished ratfucker would have encouraged her hire and *then* dropped the hammer.”

    Posted by: Bill Hooker

    Bill, notice the third sentence: I have become fond of you very much.

    Clunky, Attention Grabbing, and a Very Passive Aggressive way of saying” “I say this because I like you (even though I am going to crush you if you do not submit to my authority)”.

    He is a threatened monkey, nothing more.

  22. #22 Pinko Punko
    July 30, 2006

    Bilz0r- he’s not in charge of this hire, and it seems he tried to use his clout to terminate it. The words we’ve been using are “unethical” and they are apt. He has not behaved ethically. Period.

  23. #23 John
    August 2, 2006

    Robert Merton wrote a paper about the “Matthew Effect,” or the strong tendency for the better known scientist to get all of the credit for any collaborative work with colleagues. The effect is named after a verse in Matthew which says that even more will be given to those that have, and to those that have not, even that which they have will be taken away. One of Merton’s examples was the common statement in reviews about “work done in X’s lab,” where X was way down in the list of authors and the first authors are not even named in the text of the review. Merton said that it was possible for junior scientists to publish AND perish.

    Harriet Zuckerman (I think) interviewed Nobel winners and reported that many of them removed their names from publications to allow junior colleagues to get credit they deserved for their work. If a Nobelist is perceived as having any influence on the work of a junior colleague, the junior colleague is the one who suffers.

    The idea that a junior scientist could threaten a Nobel laureate by either collaboration or competition is absurd. MIT should be appalled at the content of those emails.

  24. #24 Mike S.
    August 5, 2006

    The facts of the case are that Tonegawa should not have been involved with the job search at all, since the faculty slot was a McGovern one. Yet he used his influence to torpedo an up-and-coming institute for the glory of his own. Case closed.

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