Caltech's decision to name David Baltimore its next president is savvy and significant, for Baltimore has just the right background and talents to help the Pasadena institute retain its footing on the shifting terrain of academic science. The Nobel Prize-winning biologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will succeed Thomas E. Everhart, who is retiring after 10 years as head of the renowned university.
Long a world leader in hard science, Caltech thrived on generous government funding during the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, for instance, fueled the institute's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and President Ronald Reagan's notion that space-based lasers could defend the country funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the "Star Wars" missile research that Caltech scientists helped direct in the 1980s.
Since the late 1980s, however, when the Cold War subsided and a new battle against the budget deficit began, public funds for the physical sciences have been drying up. The rising star now is biomedicine, which in recent years has received modest boosts in public funds and major backing from private industry.
The growth has been driven largely by the mapping of the human genome, a mammoth project to discover how our genes act like software to program the body. Baltimore has played a major role in the project, helping give it an interdisciplinary focus that is similar to the spirit of academic inquiry at Caltech.
Baltimore's experience will help Caltech, traditionally focused on physics and engineering, expand its relatively recent and promising research into neurobiology and developmental genetics. Should Pasadena develop a proposed industrial park for high-technology companies, Baltimore's experience with such industries could give Caltech a role.
Pure scientists often bristle at the notion of climbing down from their ivory towers to do practical, applied research. They fear they will lose sight of truth while walking on Wall Street. But in establishing private-academic partnerships at MIT, Baltimore has successfully mollified such concerns.
Historically, Caltech has been an insular and introspective campus. But the Caltech faculty committee that selected Baltimore said it wanted a president who would help the institute play a more prominent role in national affairs.
Most university presidents nowadays tend to operate behind the scenes. Baltimore is a welcome throwback, socially outspoken like Clark Kerr and Robert Hutchins, university presidents who in the 1950s and '60s helped explain what the sciences mean for civilization.