Prominent Biology Nobelist Chosen to Head Caltech
Caltech, an introspective school known for its academic mastery of the physical sciences, announced Tuesday that Nobel laureate David Baltimore, one of the country’s most prominent and outspoken biologists, will lead the university into the next century.
The school’s trustees formally voted Tuesday to appoint the 59-year-old scientist as president.
In choosing Baltimore, the university has married itself to a controversial scientist and experienced administrator known as much for his clashes with Congress over a federal probe into scientific fraud as for the breakthroughs in virology that earned him the 1975 Nobel Prize. Baltimore was a central figure in a decade-long investigation into a collaborator’s alleged research fraud, which ended last June when his associate was exonerated.
Baltimore, currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will assume the presidency of the school this fall, when Thomas E. Everhart will retire after 10 years as head of the university. Baltimore will be Caltech’s fifth president.
Faculty members involved in the 11-month, nationwide selection process said it signals the school’s intention to play a more prominent role in national affairs and to make its students more aware of the social implications of scientific research, they said.
“It was made explicit to me that they hope that Caltech would have a more visible role in the national debates both because it increases Caltech’s visibility and because they believe it is appropriate for Caltech to do so,” Baltimore said.
Caltech, generally considered one of the world’s leading research centers, has 900 undergraduate and 1,100 graduate students. It manages NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as several major observatories in Southern California and Hawaii.
Baltimore will head a faculty and alumni that have won 25 Nobel Prizes.
“David Baltimore is perhaps the most influential living biologist, and surely one of the most accomplished,” said Gordon E. Moore, chair of Caltech’s board of trustees. “He is our nation’s leader in the effort to create an AIDS vaccine, and he was a major player in the creation of a national science policy consensus on recombinant DNA research.”
Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, called Baltimore “a man of incredible vision and scientific insight.” His appointment as president of Caltech is “terrific,” Varmus said Tuesday.
Bruce Alberts, head of the National Academy of Sciences, called it “a wonderful challenge” for Baltimore and a “great opportunity” for Caltech. “David is one of the world’s finest biological scientists. He is extremely creative, energetic, and full of ideas.”
Places like Caltech, Baltimore said, “have a special responsibility to help society adapt to the continually changing opportunities” created by science.
“All Americans--scientist and non-scientist alike--are bombarded daily by an incredible array of scientific discoveries and engineering developments,” he said. “I look forward to working with the Caltech faculty to advise our society as it adjusts to these changing capabilities.”
More important, perhaps, Baltimore’s appointment reflects changing research priorities and the recognition of the overriding importance of biology as a field of scientific endeavor in the coming decade.
“Caltech has committed itself to making biology an important part of its future,” Baltimore said. As one measure of that commitment, the school already has pledged to raise $100 million for biology research, officials said.
“We see biology as a very special field for the future . . . and, all things being equal, we had a preference for a biologist” as president, said Caltech physics professor Kip Thorne, who was the head of the faculty search committee that selected Baltimore.
Moore, when he announced the appointment, said: “In the coming decade there may be rapid and remarkable changes in the relationships between research universities and government, industry and society. Dr. Baltimore is just the right person to lead us into the 21st century.”
Baltimore spent much of the last decade defending a junior associate from fraud charges. That put him at the center of a widely publicized scientific controversy and a series of acrimonious clashes with Michigan Rep. John Dingell and congressional investigators. What some called courage in the face of fierce congressional criticism, others called arrogance and elitism.
Indeed, his high-profile opposition to a congressional investigation of a research colleague forced him in 1991 to resign as the president of New York’s Rockefeller University--which in its intense focus on basic research resembles Caltech perhaps more than any other school in the country--after only two years in office.
While it was apparent that Baltimore had not been involved in any wrongdoing, the Rockefeller faculty asked him to step down because, they contended, he had become a divisive figure. “I learned to take the consequences of my beliefs,” Baltimore said.
However, Baltimore was ultimately vindicated when the charges against his colleague were overturned on appeal last summer and the investigators who brought them were discredited.
Thorne said the faculty selection committee was well aware of the controversy and dismissed its importance to Caltech before approaching Baltimore as a possible candidate earlier this year.
“The only relevance for us was the degree to which these experiences have strengthened his character and given him added wisdom,” Thorne said.
In bringing him to Caltech, the school’s trustees are bringing west a man who is quintessentially of the Eastern Seaboard. Baltimore has spent his professional career almost exclusively at MIT; his wife is a dean of New York University; they summer on Cape Cod; and as an activist, he has played a major role in almost every important Washington science policy debate in biology of the past 30 years--from the safety of genetic engineering and the implications of the Human Genome Project to the search for a cure to AIDS.
Colleagues say his influence is composed in equal parts of research reputation, executive ability and a persistent willingness to lobby on national science policy questions.
John B. Slaughter, a former director of the National Science Foundation and president of Occidental College, said Baltimore’s defense of his colleague in the face of a congressional investigation and his work on AIDS have “shown leadership on many issues where concerned scientists have been involved. He in some ways represents the conscience of the scientific communities.”
Despite his brush with controversy, he is still active at senior policy levels. Only six months ago, he became chairman of the National Institutes of Health AIDS Vaccine Research Committee to “reinvigorate” that research effort. And at least several federal science policymakers hope that Baltimore will be able to use the presidency of Caltech as a bully pulpit for the defense of research funding.
“David is one of the acknowledged leaders in biomedical research and has always played a significant role in the affairs of NIH,” said Varmus.
“No doubt the Caltech presidency will give him a platform for being an important spokesperson for all the sciences, which today are under siege in an environment of budget balancing.”
In the short run, Baltimore was cautious about suggesting any changes he might make in the administration of Caltech. As a relative stranger to the university campus, he has almost no direct knowledge of Caltech, save for its reputation for excellence.
“I have the sense of an extremely healthy, exciting, vibrant environment in which to pursue science and technology, and the development of new science,” he said. “I have never spent more than a day or two on campus. I certainly can’t pretend to know the dimensions of the place.
“The key attraction [for me] was the quality and collegiality of the faculty,” he said. “I found them to be people who are quietly and unabashedly devoted to the progress of science.”
Baltimore said he hoped that Caltech would spur greater development of high-tech industries in the Pasadena area and expected to actively lobby to ensure that JPL continues to play a major role in the U.S. space effort.
The move to Pasadena will entail some personal hardship for his family. Baltimore is married to Alice Huang, a respected biologist, who will have to resign as NYU’s dean of science in order to make the move, she said Tuesday.
“I have some hope I could be a virtual dean and finish some of my projects there by computer,” she said. As for his own plans, Baltimore said he intends to maintain his research laboratory at MIT for the near future, to give his colleagues there an opportunity to complete their research projects, while he assumes his administrative duties at Caltech.
“I also plan to maintain a strong presence in Washington and continue as head of the AIDS vaccine research committee,” Baltimore said. “I hope to be able to play a role in the national debates about the directions of science.”
Alberts at the National Academy of Sciences said it was Baltimore’s determination to speak out on policy matters as a university president that he found most encouraging.
“We badly need strong leadership from our university presidents and for them to be a more visible presence,” Alberts said. “I see so many university presidents across the country disappearing from public view because they are so concerned with fund-raising. I hope he can be protected from that.”
Times staff writer Peter Y. Hong contributed to this story.
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Profile: David Baltimore
The Nobel laureate, one of the nation’s most prominent and outspoken biologists, has been selected as the new president of Caltech.
Born: New York City
Education: Bachelor of arts, Swarthmore College; PhD, Rockefeller University.
Family: Married to biologist Alice Huang, dean of science at New York University; one child.
Academic Career: Research associate in 1968 at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, where he met his wife; Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty since 1968; founded Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT; member, National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Honors: 1975 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, for his discovery of the enzyme that allows retroviruses, such as HIV, to replicate
Public Service: Head of National Institutes of Health AIDS Vaccine Research Committee, 1996; co-chair of National Academy of Sciences committee on a national strategy for AIDS, 1986
Hobbies: fly-fishing, sail-boarding, reading
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One of the world’s most influential research centers, Caltech is also among the U.S.'s most selective colleges and graduate schools.
* Research: Several of its research programs, including those in astrophysics, astronomy, geosciences and chemistry are ranked first in the nation by the National Research Council.
* Academic Reputation: Its undergraduates have consistently had the highest median SAT scores among U.S. colleges; ranked No. 9 among national universities in U.S. News annual survey.
* History: Founded in Pasadena in 1891 as Throop University, the institute was renamed the California Institute of Technology in 1920.
* Endowment: $1 billion.
* Students: 900 undergraduate, 1,100 graduate
* Faculty: 275 professional, 400 research
* Nobel Prize Winners: 25 among faculty and alumni
* Off-Campus Facilities: Jet Propulsion Laboratory (managed by Caltech for NASA); Palomar Observatory, San Diego; Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii
* Tuition (full time): $18,024 undergraduate, $18,231 graduate
* Prominent Laureates: Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize-winning chemist; Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist; Rudy Marcus, Nobel Prize-winning chemist.