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Baltimore Discusses Science, Community

By Eun J. Lee


Hundreds flocked to Kresge Auditorium on Tuesday evening to hear Nobel Laureate and President of the California Institute of Technology David Baltimore ’61 give a talk entitled “Building a Community on Trust.”

Baltimore said that he faced a difficult choice when deciding to choose “trust” as the topic for his lecture. “Although I have ascended to a higher position, I still find it easiest to talk about biology, and I don’t think they wanted my fundraising pitch for CalTech,” Baltimore said. “I approach this [issue] as an amateur.”

National news shows need for trust

“Trust is an interpersonal interaction, and one of the myriad of interactions that make up a society,” Baltimore said. “It seems that trust is falling out of fashion.”

He cited recent national events which spurred his interest in the topic, citing the Enron scandal and the aftermath of Sept. 11. These events have had a dramatic impact on the trust that Americans now have for many national institutions.

Baltimore discussed the need for trust on a national level in light of recent events.

“The antithesis of trust is war, and we are living in war,” Baltimore said. “We’re grateful for the [increased] protection because enemies exist who use trust as a shield to gain access [for terrorism].”

He went on to say that although our society is increasingly reliant on technology, we must be aware that this same technology which is meant to be beneficial can also be used in the wrong hands as “a tool for chicanery and downright fraud.”

Whitehead had to earn MIT trust

Baltimore recollected trust issues that the MIT community had to deal with at the time when he was director of Whitehead Institute. “When the Whitehead family volunteered $34 million to fund the institution, the response [from MIT] was not joy, but suspicion,” Baltimore said.

He described the initial dealings with the logistics of Whitehead as precautionary. “We knew that no piece of paper could define all our interactions.”

In the case of Whitehead, Baltimore insisted that the motives of the founders were pure, which is reflected today in what the institution has become.

“Both sides have to satisfy themselves that their trust is justified,” Baltimore said. “Whitehead wanted nothing more than to be a productive institute.”

Baltimore attributed the success of Whitehead to developing this trust on an operational level. “You have to put in processes that are the underlying strengths of an institution,” he said in response to a question following the talk. “Whitehead showed that these could be established relatively quickly.”

Scientific context of trust can vary

Baltimore described three main tiers of scientific investigation. The first was observational science, which he characterized as “a reincarnation of the chief mode of studying the world in ancient times.” The other two types of science he termed hypothesis driven and technology development.

“We still do science to find a way of describing the world, but now we’re looking at it in finer and finer resolutions,” Baltimore said. He also said that the scale of the information in today’s observational science projects is much greater, citing the recently completed human genome project as a prime example.

“The suspicions of the rectitude of [scientific findings] has died down in recent years,” Baltimore said. “It is rare to come across fraud in science.”

He said that the actual incidence of scientific fraud has not decreased, but the media attention on the issue has just quelled. “My belief is that it was never a big problem.”

Baltimore himself was the center of a decade-long media controversy in a case of scientific fraud starting in 1986 with the publication in Cell of an article he co-authored with former Assistant Professor of Biology Thereza Imanishi-Kari. The claims, brought forth by a post-doctoral researcher and pursued by the National Institutes of Health and the federal House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, were eventually dismissed.

Trust not enough in large projects

With science more dependent on group work, Baltimore further defined trust in the context of scientific work groups. “We assume trustworthy scientific colleagues -- that is how organizations function,” Baltimore said. “Only in extremes do we doubt his or her honesty.”

He went on to say that all intellectual endeavors highly depend on personal integrity, which is even more reason why group science depends on trust.

However, he said, in scientific projects where vast amounts of data and calculations must be accumulated by a multitude of scientists, trust alone cannot be relied upon to ensure proper communication and collaboration within the framework.

“At that level of complexity, you can’t rely only on trust,” Baltimore said.

One prime example of large scale projects that became disjointed is the failure of NASA’s Mars exploration missions. Baltimore attributed these catastrophic mistakes that were caught after the fact to the lack of rigorous testing that had previously been done before NASA went on a rampage to cut its operating costs.

Withholding lab info violates trust

Following Baltimore’s talk, members of the audience were invited to ask questions of the Nobel Laureate.

The first question that arose dealt with the issue of scientific colleagues furtively withholding the details of their research due to competition for recognition by publishing their findings first.

“This is a difficult issue because of the strong competition that exists between scientific research groups today,” Baltimore said. “It is easy to rue, but very hard to do anything about.”

Baltimore agreed with the audience member who first posed the question that it is a serious problem in the scientific community. “We need to try to prove to people that you can be open and still be effective,” Baltimore said.

Another topic that came up was the issue of scientific trust in the wake of bioterrorism.

Baltimore said that new security measures requiring the registration of laboratories and increasing research surveillance are necessary. “The most dangerous thing is secrecy,” Baltimore said. “Biological warfare was [first] developed on the barriers of secrecy.”

Admins torn between loyalties

One issue which Baltimore addressed during his talk was brought back up during the questions. This dealt with the issue of trust between college students and their schools.

“CalTech and MIT get the same sort of headstrong students,” Baltimore said.

He stressed that many of the issues facing students at MIT and CalTech are homologous for students at colleges throughout the country.

“How do you allow students to have autonomy and at the same time ensure their safety and growth as individuals?” Baltimore asked. “I’m trying to wrestle with that balance today myself, but I don’t think we’ve found the right mix yet.”

Talk draws Course VII students

Although the topic of Baltimore’s talk was not focused on his prior work in biology, many students studying this field came to hear his talk.

“I was curious to find out what he would be talking about because this is an unusual subject for a molecular biologist,” said Graham Ruby G, a first year biology graduate student. “I liked his point about the need for openness and sharing research data.”

“It seemed a little different from what I expected,” said Priya Banerjee ’05. “It was relevant, though, because I’m Course VII, and [the topic] is something that I will have to think about.”

Baltimore’s talk was the fourth in the Ford/MIT Nobel Laureate Lecture Series. Prior to taking on the presidency at CalTech five years ago, Baltimore worked at MIT as an Institute Professor and was also the founding director for the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Baltimore was awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries concerning the interaction between tumor viruses and the genetic material of the cell.”