Earth Institute Director Bows Out

An ambitious attempt to bring scientists from diverse disciplines together to study global problems is about to get fresh leadership. Peter Eisenberger, the controversial director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, resigned on 24 March, citing differences over the institute's direction as well as his health. Columbia has named executive provost Michael Crow, a key force behind the creation of the Earth Institute, as its interim leader until a replacement is found.

Columbia lured Eisenberger from Princeton University, where he had founded the Materials Institute, to head the new Earth Institute in 1995. Eisenberger's mandate was to bring members of a vaunted physical sciences team at Columbia's 50-year-old Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)--renowned for their research on topics like plate tectonics--together with researchers on the main campus, in research cultures ranging from biology to social science, to work on climate change and other pressing societal issues. Not surprisingly, the wrenching changes drew resistance, with many scientists complaining that Eisenberger was slighting traditional areas like petrology and rushing headlong into realms such as the economics of global climate change (Science, 22 May 1998, p. 1182).

The culture clash and Eisenberger's management style may have precipitated his resignation, observers say. Oceanographer Taro Takahashi, associate director of LDEO, says the hard-driving Eisenberger "didn't listen to people very well"--although, he admits, "I thought he was getting better." In Takahashi's view, Eisenberger "likes to handle [global] problems ... not as a scientist but as a politician." Eisenberger did not return calls from Science. But in a resignation statement, he cited "differences on matters of principle and how best to proceed with the growth of the Institute, and more recently my personal health."

Crow's most pressing task will be to bring some equanimity to the institute. "The Earth Institute is a great idea," says LDEO geochemist Wallace Broecker. "It's just got to be done in the right way." Few would disagree--especially if somebody can figure out just what the right way is.

Posted in Environment, Earth, Scientific Community