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Scathing report about MIT neuroscience released today

Earlier this summer, a controversy erupted at MIT when the director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Susumu Tonegawa, scared off a young scientist, Alla Karpova, whom MIT’s other neuroscience institute, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the biology department, were trying to recruit. The incident brought to light ongoing tensions between the two centers and cast MIT in a not-so-favorable light in the press. MIT’s president Susan Hockfield formed a committee (of MIT physics and material science professors) to investigate the matter.

Today, that committee MIT released its report. (You can read it here.) And it is damning. It bluntly lays blame on just about everyone involved in the botched attempt to recruit Karpova, from the biology department search committee, and the chair of that department, Chris Kaiser, to Tonegawa and the director of the McGovern Institute, Robert Desimone. It’s also critical of the dean of science and the MIT administration for the way they handled the ensuing complaints and controversy about Tonegawa. Even the people who filed the complaints in the first place didn’t escape blame.

But it is the two institutes and their leaders that seem to be shouldering a good portion of the blame. “The competition and lack of communication among the difference neuroscience units, especially Picower and McGovern, have led to a breakdown of this system [of academic departments working alongside research centers at MIT] and is impeding progress in neuroscience at MIT,” the panel said.

The report gives, in dramatic detail, how proper procedures were not followed in the attempt to recruit Karpova, how certain key players were left out and how certain players tried to inappropriately interfere (not just Tonegawa) with the process. All served to highlight, in a very unflattering light, how competition and in-fighting have plagued the two brain institutes at MIT and how little control MIT has had over these two well-endowed research centers.

The provost has responded by creating a new council to oversee recruitment in neuroscience. The council will include members of the four entities involved in neuroscience research and will report to the provost. It will make recommendations to the provost about the use of shared space, start-up packages and faculty positions. This looks like MIT’s attempt to regain control over these centers.

One recommendation that the report didn’t make is that MIT apologize to Karpova. Apologies may have already been made in private, but considering how her experience with MIT has already had such a public airing, it seems appropriate that there be some kind of public apology. In reading the account of MIT’s attempt to hire her, it became clear to me that she was caught in the middle of something much bigger, more fractious and unpleasant than what she probably bargained for when she first applied for the job. Certainly no way to start off a career in academic science.

But she is now at HHMI’s Janelia Farm. Given all the problems with MIT neuroscience, she’s probably in a better place.

See this related essay written for NNB by MIT biology professor Jonathan King about this matter.

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    Corie Lok said:

    MIT professors respond

    In the news this morning, Robert Desimone, Nancy Kanwisher, Robert Horvitz, and Tomaso Poggio, all with the McGovern Institute, are criticizing the report, saying it has major inaccuracies and misrepresentations, according to a Boston Globe article and a report on WBUR. In fact, I heard Poggio say on WBUR that he felt ashamed to be associated with MIT as a result of this report.

    According to the Globe article, Susumu Tonegawa said in a statement:

    The report “accurately distributes the blame to several individuals, including myself, as well as to the flawed culture that has developed in the neuroscience program,” he said. “I look forward to doing all I can to help” improve collaboration.

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