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MIT vows to press its scientists to collaborate

CAMBRIDGE -- The president of MIT yesterday called for a broad examination of the university's world-renowned brain research program following recent allegations that a Nobel laureate bullied a scientist the university was trying to recruit .

Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist who is president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the school will form a committee to find ways to improve collaboration between neuroscience professors, some of whom are bitter competitors. Her decision is a sign that MIT fears divisiveness could threaten the university's efforts to lead one of science's fastest-moving fields.

In a letter responding to professors who wanted MIT to investigate the senior professor's treatment of the job recruit, Hockfield said there are ``ongoing tensions among MIT's neuroscience entities" and suggested that the current situation ``threatens ongoing disruption of the collegiality of our academic enterprise." The letter, dated Monday, was obtained by the Globe.

The MIT controversy is occurring as many universities are struggling to adapt to the realities of modern science. Emerging areas such as neuroscience are forcing scientists, used to fierce competition, to collaborate across boundaries -- between departments, between fields, between rival institutes -- that divide academia.

Last week, a group of Harvard faculty members issued a report calling for dramatic changes to that university's organization, saying scientific progress was being hampered by the kind of turf battles now coming to light at MIT.

``This issue has broad significance because the most important intellectual challenges of our time call for interdisciplinary approaches," Hockfield said yesterday in a written statement for the media.

MIT's provost will convene the new committee as soon as possible, but the university has no timeline yet. An MIT spokeswoman said the group would be small, perhaps four to five members, and might include someone from outside MIT.

MIT is home to three brain science groups -- the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory , and the university's brain and cognitive sciences department.

On June 30, in a letter to Hockfield, a group of 11 female professors, including four members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences , accused Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa , Picower's head, of strongly discouraging a promising female scientist from accepting a job offer from MIT's biology department and the McGovern.

The scientist, Alla Karpova, declined the job offer and, in an e-mail to MIT officials, cited Tonegawa's resistance. She has since accepted a job running a lab at Janelia Farm in Virginia that was created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Tonegawa's critics have suggested that he viewed Karpova as a competitor, but six of Tonegawa's Picower colleagues have defended him in a letter to Hockfield.

When a reporter showed up at his office yesterday, Tonegawa said Hockfield had instructed him not to comment. Karpova has not responded to requests for comment this week. Last night, Tonegawa released a statement saying he welcomed the appointment of the new committee to strengthen the ties between neuroscience units at MIT.

``I am absolutely certain that I acted entirely appropriately at all times regarding the candidacy of Ms. Karpova," his statement said. ``I did nothing to interfere with the offer she received from the McGovern Institute. Ms. Karpova asked me to serve as her mentor and to collaborate in research if she were to join the McGovern Institute faculty. Because of my responsibilities as director of the Picower Institute and other factors, I felt I could not agree to her request. "

Hockfield, in her letter to professors, wrote that MIT has reached out to Karpova ``to apologize for any misunderstanding during the recruitment process that might have made her question MIT's commitment to young faculty."

MIT's provost, Rafael Reif , is setting up the new committee.

``We have the best and brightest in neuroscience under one roof. They are all superstars in their fields," Reif said. ``Clearly, there is some tension . . . I need to make sure this doesn't happen again."

MIT's $175 million Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, 411,000 square feet encased in limestone and glass, opened to great fanfare last fall. MIT hoped that uniting the McGovern, Picower, and the brain and cognitive sciences department would produce what Hockfield called a ``cauldron of collaboration." But one aspect of the design is sometimes joked about: McGovern and Picower have separate entrances.

``The higher up you are in any organization, the more egos there are," said Jayson Derwin , a research technician at the Picower. ``They battle each other like children."

Several graduate students disagreed . ``From a graduate student's perspective, there isn't a rivalry," said Alex Rivest , a student in Tonegawa's lab, who said he had worked with people at the McGovern.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com, Cook at cook@globe.com.

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