Turmoil at Baylor College of Medicine Over Conflicts, Possible Suitor

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

Worries about future governance continue to shake Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), the top ranked, but financially troubled research institution in Houston, Texas. Last week after merger talks with nearby Rice University fell apart, reports surfaced that BCM leaders want to join forces with Baylor University (BU) in Waco, Texas. (The two were linked in the past but split apart 41 years ago.) The proposal has BCM faculty protesting that the Baptist university could curb research in areas such as stem cells. The unrest follows another setback for BCM—a federal crackdown on the school's management of conflicts of interest.

Baylor University's stated mission is "to educate men and women ... by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment." News last week of a possible reunion of the two Baylors prompted a letter of protest to BCM's interim president, William Butler, and BCM board's chair. More than 400 BCM faculty and staff members, students, and alumni have signed the online petition, which warns that "the religious ideologies that permeate throughout BU's academic policies may adversely affect both scientific progress and the culture at BCM, particularly in relation to issues such as evolution, embryonic stem cells, and sexual orientation."

In an e-mail this morning, Butler claimed that "This is not a merger ... but rather a strengthening of our longstanding affiliation with Baylor University." Any agreement "will assure that BCM maintains its independence and importantly, its scientific and academic freedom," he wrote. But some medical school faculty doubt that a firewall would work. Human embryonic stem cell researcher Thomas Zwaka, who signed the petition, says "it doesn't make sense to me" that BU would form an alliance without imposing its values on BCM. Otherwise, he says, "What's the point?" According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, an agreement could be discussed at a 27 January meeting of BCM's board.

Meanwhile, the medical school is dealing with another headache. The National Institutes of Health has "serious concerns regarding BCM's compliance" with rules on managing NIH-funded investigators' conflicts of interest, according to a letter last week from NIH to Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA). NIH's scrutiny came after Grassley questioned the school's oversight of more than $34,000 that drug companies paid BCM cardiologist Christie Ballantyne for work involving the anti-cholesterol drug Vytorin. NIH has asked BCM to document that it has managed potential conflicts for every new grant and to review paperwork for active NIH grants back to 2004.

"We have been and are continuing to work directly with the NIH on this issue and are confident we are responding to every suggestion that has been made and every request for additional information," BCM told ScienceInsider in a statement.

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