Once-Disgraced Scientist Gets Public Embrace
Rockefeller University brought to a close one of the most contentious science disputes of the last quarter century Tuesday by bestowing an honorary degree on Nobel laureate David Baltimore, embracing an outspoken biologist who resigned the school’s presidency in disgrace 13 years ago.
Baltimore, now president of Caltech, was a central figure in a fierce controversy over scientific fraud. Singled out during congressional hearings into charges that important research findings had been fabricated, he weathered the appearance of fraud for almost a decade rather than abandon a junior colleague accused of falsifying laboratory data. They were exonerated by a federal review panel in 1996.
On Tuesday, Baltimore, 66, returned to the elite research university on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as its first invited commencement speaker.
There, a man once castigated before Congress as a betrayer of scientific truth was hailed by Sir Paul Nurse, Rockefeller’s current president, as “a master builder of scientific institutions.”
“It takes a great institution to admit error,” said Yale University science historian Daniel J. Kevles, author of “The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character.” “The award of the degree appears to me a magnanimous gesture to make amends for what at the time was a grave injustice.”
Baltimore’s case began with arguments in a collaborator’s lab over published findings from a genetics experiment. The dispute escalated into a bitter public clash over government probes of alleged research misconduct. Although he was never accused of wrongdoing, Baltimore became a lightning rod for congressional ire and harsh media coverage.
Nurse, a 2001 Nobel Prize winner, lauded Baltimore on Tuesday as “the most influential biologist of his generation.” He praised Baltimore for discoveries “that overturned a central assumption about how nature worked” and as the university’s most distinguished alumnus.
Baltimore, who graduated from Rockefeller in 1964 and was its president from 1990 to 1991, spoke to the graduating class on a topic he had come to know all too well in his career: the politics of science.
Rockefeller -- an unconventional school without traditional courses, examinations or departments -- had never before given an honorary degree to one of its own graduates or allowed anyone receiving an honorary degree to address the convocation.
In a voice husky with emotion, Baltimore spoke of the corrosive effect of political ideology on important scientific research and the damaging effects of new immigration restrictions on the nation’s scientific workforce.
“Enormous damage has already been done,” Baltimore said, citing a “severe drop” at Caltech and other research universities in applications from foreign students, who are now going to other countries for advanced training.
“That has to be a problem for our economy and for our national security,” he said.
The ceremony concluded, Baltimore led the procession of scientists out of the auditorium, marching to a fanfare of trumpets and drums scored to musical notes suggested by the genetic code.