No evil deed goes unrewarded

I wrote about David Sabatini last year, the molecular biologist who’d left a string of failed positions, being fired, dismissed, cut loose, kicked out of multiple prestigious institutions for publishing fake data, repeatedly harassing women, and running his lab like it was Animal House. Then it looked like he was going to be hired by NYU, which left me gobsmacked. I had even made a prediction.

David Sabatini, the molecular biologist who sexually harassed students and faked data, was first fired from HHMI and the Whitehead Institute, and then resigned from MIT as his behavior was exposed. We’re done with him, right? He’ll go get a job in construction or pharmaceutical sales and we won’t have to worry about his unpleasant influence on academia anymore.

Sabatini has proven himself unsuited for the profession multiple times. For most people, losing one position makes landing a second one exponentially more difficult (this is a career that judges you harshly), and here was this guy who’d lost one, two, three positions — and didn’t get hired by NYU. This was a scientist who’d been the subject of a scathing exposé by the Boston Globe and various independent probes.

The controversy over Sabatini was reignited recently when The Boston Globe published a two-part investigation into the scandal. But it first erupted in August 2021, when Sabatini resigned from Whitehead after an investigation it commissioned from outside lawyers. At the time, Sabatini ran a lab of nearly 40 people and was an HHMI investigator and the lead scientist on five National Institutes of Health grants totaling nearly $2 million.

The Whitehead probe concluded that Sabatini fostered a sexualized lab environment in which he rewarded those who participated in sexual banter, threatened retaliation against lab members if they raised questions about his conduct, and threatened another faculty member who refused to hire a young visiting scientist whom Sabatini would later marry. It also found that he and Knouse carried on a sexual relationship against Whitehead rules.

She was a new Whitehead scientist operating in an educational program he supervised and for whom he would be expected to write recommendation letters. Their relationship began before Knouse arrived at Whitehead, when she was an MIT graduate student. That was a breach of an MIT policy that had recently been announced with fanfare.

Knouse has said she was coerced into the relationship, but Sabatini has argued otherwise and said the Whitehead investigation was flawed and unfair.

That man is a walking disaster. No sane institution would take on someone with that kind of record, but they did, repeatedly. And now he has fallen upwards once again, thanks to an asshole billionaire or two.

David Sabatini, the prominent biologist who was fired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and resigned from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in 2021 after a probe found he committed sexual misconduct, is getting a second chance. Billionaire Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, and another, anonymous financial backer will each give Sabatini $2.5 million annually for the next 5 years to relaunch his research on cell signaling, cancer, and other topics. The move is stirring controversy.

The biologist, who also resigned from a tenured faculty position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last year, is a scientific reviewer for Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation. Ackman, meanwhile, is among a vocal contingent of Sabatini supporters who have argued that his punishment has been disproportionate. Ackman’s move “sends the message that some high-profile and ethical people are willing to support David Sabatini reengaging his brilliant career as a scientist and mentor of other scientists, despite the risk that by doing so they themselves will be falsely attacked,” says Jeffrey Flier, an endocrinologist at Harvard Medical School and former dean there.

$5 million/year for five years!!! For a failed bad boy of molecular biology! What kind of connections does Sabatini have with billionaires? It’s a catastrophe that we’re going to reward such rotten behavior — the rich are going to make an end run around peer review and install terrible, abusive people into positions at institutions of higher education where they can poison and squash the careers of young women.

Ackman made a curious statement, too.

As to whether his investment in Sabatini telegraphs that powerful men help other powerful men land on their feet, never mind their misdeeds, Ackman said: “If the situation were reversed, we would be backing [Knouse]. It’s not bro culture backing up the guys. That’s really really important.” Then he added: “By the way, it’s my wife and I who made this decision.” Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, a designer and former MIT professor, serves as a co-trustee of the Pershing Square Foundation.

So he’s saying that if there were a powerful woman who was an abusive bully and who faked data, he’d also be supporting her? That’s not reassuring.

The only good news so far is that they haven’t actually announced where this pampered incompetent is going to work — they’re just handing him $5 million for his first year and telling him to set up a lab somewhere, anywhere and start churning out data. That’s not how it works. You don’t work alone, science is highly collaborative, and it’s silly to think you can build up a successful lab from scratch. With that much money, I suspect some wealthy university is going to ignore any scruples and find him a spot, though, despite the fact that it will bring them much shame.

Wait…I have an idea! They need a shameless institution (which is sort of true for any rich, elitist college), but the one that leaps to mind is…The University of Austin! There’s a match made in Hell, it’s perfect.


  1. robro says

    I had to do a quick scan of Ackman’s bio in Wikipedia. Controversy seems to follow the guy’s business dealings, of course, but this jumped out at me about he and Dr. Oxman: “In August 2019, Ackman wrote to MIT to discourage them from revealing the $125,000 donation that Jeffrey Epstein made to Oxman’s lab.” Wonder why he wanted to suppress that information.

    Also note that Ackman is considered “a long time donor to Democratic candidates and organizations.” There are no good guys in politics.

  2. Matt G says

    I’m increasingly of the opinion that these jerks support these other jerks BECAUSE of their despicable behavior, not despite it. It’s like a display of power to remind the lower-downs to stay lower down.

  3. doctorworm says

    Even if you’re the sort of diseased chode to whom multiple credible accusations of sexual misconduct are no big deal, how is faking data not an immediate deal breaker for a scientist?

  4. Allison says

    Ackman, from the OP:

    It’s not bro culture backing up the guys.

    It’s bro culture backing up the guys (=other bros.)

    “Everything [he] says is a lie, including the words a, an, and the.”

  5. says

    “Relaunch his research on cell signaling, cancer, and other topics?” What’s so important about that one guy’s contribution in any of those areas? And if it’s truly important, why not restart the research with more credible scientists taking the lead?

    This sounds to me like another spoiled zillionaire supporting a discredited fraud and asshole just to be spiteful, and to undermine any attempt to hold privileged white morons accountable for bad behavior. It’s certainly not about actual science — why hire anyone who’s known to FAKE DATA?

  6. moarscienceplz says

    “I wonder if Ackman has funding in line for Elizabeth Holmes.”
    Yes, but only after she sleeps with him.

  7. silvrhalide says

    @6 “It’s certainly not about actual science — why hire anyone who’s known to FAKE DATA?”

    I suspect that is precisely why some billionaire assholes hired this douchebag. Because if you have questionable drugs/medical products and need someone to heavily massage and/or P-hack the data to ram said questionable product/drug through the FDA approval process, he’s you guy. Because you already know he’ll lie when properly motivated.

    As for why douchebag billionaire wants to hang or otherwise rescue douchebag molecular biologist, well, that’s easy. Why did Andrew Windsor, Slick Willie, Dolt 45, Alan Dershowitz, Woody Allen, Bill Barr and Ken Starr all hang out with Jeffrey Epstein? Because while birds of a feather may flock together, so do pigs and swine.

  8. silvrhalide says

    Exhibit A in support of the above statement:
    “Lawrence Krauss

    Krauss is a theoretical physicist who retired from Arizona State University in 2018 after multiple sexual-misconduct allegations. Epstein was a major donor to his ASU program, and Krauss teamed up with the financier to host a conference of Nobel laureates in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2012.

    Krauss is also the source of one of the more baffling quotes defending Epstein. In 2011, he told the Daily Beast:

    If anything, the unfortunate period [Epstein] suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge. Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people. I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

    Because it’s always handy to have a creepy scientist as cover for your own creepy behavior.

  9. says

    Holy crap, did Krauss really think that a child-sex-trafficker would being his underage playthings to a high-visibility adult gathering?

  10. StevoR says

    @ ^ Raging Bee : From what I gather, example : the case of the former royal prince, it seems Epstein not only brought his “under-age play things*”(vomits) to high visibility adult gatherings; he also shared them around for others to “play” (read rape and sexually abuse & exploit) with too. (Vomits again.)

    @ 9. silvrhalide :

    As a scientist I (Lawrence Krauss- ed.) always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else

    I wonder if Krauss asked each of the yound women how old they were and, if so, whether he scientifically verified that given the possibility -indeed the likelihood – that underage people being exploited for sex would very likely be told to lie about their ages and have their ages lied about by those exploiting them?

    Its, well, not funny at all really, that the same misogynist camp in the mannosphere that would claim women are supposedly lying or misconstruing reality about so many things but particuarly sexual abuse and people creeping on them would believe a known pedophile and unquestioningly trust the accounts of rich misogynist abusers. Its almost like exactly the case that they have personal unscientific biases and are being misled by their feelings and prejudices.

    .* Note to emphasise the literally dehumanising, object-ifying terminology – implying these human individual people are “things” and “toys” not real living individual humans with their own agency, inalienable human rights and ethical obligations in how they are to be treated.See also quote here :

  11. John Morales says


    … implying these human individual people are “things” and “toys” not real living individual humans with their own agency …

    No. They can be both, to some. Have been, since time immemorial.

    One has to exhaust the possibility space to be so definitive.

    I don’t want to hurt you, but for some, the real thing is the best thing.

    (BTW, have you read Peter Watts?)

    (Vomits again.)

    This is indicative that you’re better than I am at pre-emptive justification.

    (With good reason, I grant; I do get a lot of accusative indignance and aggro by not belabouring that sort of obvious thing, hyperbolically or otherwise)

  12. birgerjohansson says

    If you went to an Epstein social gathering, you are automatically suspect.
    I suggest we should pardon those thus suspect if they do something of great social value, like donating organs (by which I mean both gonads).

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    … I suspect some wealthy university is going to ignore any scruples and find him a spot, though, despite the fact that it will bring them much shame. …

    And here I thought our esteemed host was about to suggest The University of the Sunshine State (note the first page of those results doesn’t even include more recent problems)…