MIT Neuroscience Under Fire

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) neuroscience program is in crisis, according to an internal report released yesterday by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, university. The problems will continue to fester, warns an internal panel led by MIT astrophysicist Jacqueline Hewitt, unless the acrimony among MIT neuroscientists is dealt with speedily.

MIT officials responded immediately, saying they would set up an advisory council to coordinate hiring and come up with a more coherent program. "We cannot allow internal competitiveness to undercut the integrity, values, and mission of the Institute as a whole," MIT President Susan Hockfield said in a prepared statement.

The fracas began when a young neuroscientist named Alla Karpova declined a position at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research. As her reason, she cited resistance to her appointment by Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, who heads the rival Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT. Karpova's supporters say Tonegawa sent e-mails to Karpova that were inappropriate and intimidating and that senior MIT officials refused to intervene. When the matter became public in July (Science, 21 July, p. 284), MIT Provost Rafael Reif set up a panel to investigate the situation across campus, including at the two institutes.

In its 10-page report, the four-member ad-hoc committee of MIT faculty concludes that the McGovern Institute lacks direction, that the Picower Institute is too narrow in its work, and neither collaborates adequately with the other. The independence of both institutes, it adds, "makes it difficult if not impossible for the dean to resolve disagreements between the units." Without changes, the panel predicts more trouble in the future.

As for Karpova, the report says MIT's effort to recruit her was "unusual and flawed in many ways." Karpova, now a postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, is moving in June to the new Janelia Farm research campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institution outside Washington, D.C., where she will become a group leader.

In response to the report, MIT will establish a neuroscience advisory panel, led by materials scientist Lorna Gibson, to tackle the broader issues troubling the program. But MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who has led an ongoing effort to put the issue of women faculty on the university's agenda, criticized "this indecisive response by the administration." Hopkins says that the university's response to date "perpetuates destructive behavior by senior faculty and administrators against young scientists, particularly women," while damaging neuroscience at the university.

For more information and further developments, please stay tuned for the 10 November issue of Science.

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Posted in Brain & Behavior, Scientific Community