Nobel Biochemist to Head Alien Biology Institute

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

A new NASA institute dedicated to studying how life might evolve elsewhere in the universe has finally found a leader. Space agency chief Daniel Goldin today named Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Baruch Blumberg as head of the Astrobiology Institute, ending a lengthy search that saw several leading candidates turn down the post.

When Goldin unveiled the institute a year ago at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, agency officials had hoped to hire a chief quickly (Science, 29 May 1998, p. 1338). Several prominent midcareer scientists turned down the job, however, due to concerns about bureaucratic infighting and their unwillingness to trade secure research jobs for the uncertainty of serving a 3-year term as director. The leadership void worried some astrobiologists, especially after NASA last summer chose 11 university-based teams to jump-start the initiative, which has a $10 million budget this year and plans to operate as a "virtual" network connected by the Internet. "They picked the team before they had a coach," said one.

In Blumberg, however, NASA has found an elder statesman of science who can afford to take on a new challenge. The 73-year-old biomedical researcher is best known for his 1960s work on the hepatitis B vaccine, which won him a share of the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine. Since 1977, he has been a professor of medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a senior adviser to the Fox Chase Cancer Center, both in Philadelphia. He also served as Master of Balliol College at Oxford in Britain from 1989 to 1994.

At today's press conference, Blumberg said he became interested in astrobiology--which focuses on understanding the origins of life on Earth and how life may have similarly gained a toehold in alien environments--after being invited last year to advise NASA on setting up the new center. "Astrobiology is the place to be," he says, noting that the next decade should bring major advances in both biology and space exploration.

Blumberg "is a superb appointment that bodes very well for the institute," says radio astronomer Frank Drake, who heads the private SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which scans the universe for signs of intelligent life. He says the biochemist "has the stature and experience to expedite the process of turning [the institute] into a real force" in the new field.

Posted in Space, Scientific Community, Evolution