Adventures in Ethics and Science

Karpova-Tonegawa update.

Just a little more follow-up on the KarpovaTonegawa dust-up at MIT:

First, the report from the Ad Hoc Committee at MIT was posted on November 2 … but apparently has been removed:

The ad hoc committee is currently receiving comments on the report that it issued on November 2, 2006 and pending its consideration of the comments it receives, the Committee has asked that the report be taken off the website temporarily.

I have a PDF of the report as originally posted, and am curious about how whatever the committee ends up reposting will differ from what I have. However, I’m not sure if I ought to quote that initial report here, given that it’s been taken down.

There were two features of this report I found really striking. One was that the committee acknowledged an odd relationship between the McGovern Institute (which was interested in hiring Karpova), the Picower Institute (of which Tonegawa was the founder) and the MIT Biology Department — a relationship where overlapping interests and interlocking access to resources and faculty slots seemed to set the stage for unfortunate clashes between individuals, rather than facilitating the kind of cooperation and collaboration that would make for efficient tackling of scientific problems.

The other thing that grabbed me was the committee’s concerns that confidentiality hadn’t been observed by — well, by pretty much anybody involved in trying to hire Karpova or in trying to thwart that hire. The idea here is that if only people had stayed within the proper channels, MIT’s administration could have gotten to the bottom of things with fewer ruffled feathers, hurt feelings, and black eyes in the press.

There’s something to that — the press does love a juicy story. At the same time, a mere week after the 150th anniversary of the birth of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, I wonder if the disinfecting power of sunshine might be more important than the powers that be at MIT are inclined to acknowledge here. Changing a university culture can be hard. Sometimes scrutiny from the world beyond your campus can get you moving a little bit faster.

By the way, on Friday, Susumu Tonegawa announced that he was resigning as head of the Picower Institute, though he will continue to do research there. Perhaps this will put him in a better position to be collaborative, rather than territorial, toward promising young researchers.

(Also, Transient Reporter provides a spot-on reading of one of Tonegawa’s emails to Karpova through the eyes of a junior scientist. If Tonegawa didn’t intend to come off this way, it might have been advisable for him to run his message by a junior colleague first to see what he or she thought the message was.)


  1. #1 Pinko Punko
    November 21, 2006

    I found that the pleas for confidentiality seemed to float entirely around instances of institutional reputation, and putting the well-being of MIT as a whole over anything else. I would add that the pleas had nothing whatsoever to do with Karpova discussing Tonegawa’s e-mails with other people, considering the very existence of e-mails from T were deemed out of line.

    I await version 2 of the ad hoc report.

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