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Prominent Biology Nobelist Chosen to Head Caltech

Education: Controversial and outspoken scientist David Baltimore says his appointment reflects school's desire for bigger role in nation's scientific debates.

May 14, 1997|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

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.

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