I always wondered how you can be a university president & on the board of pharmaceutical companies & run a gigantic research lab

I know that guy! That’s Marc Tessier-Lavigne! He’s about my age, and we shared similar interests — we were both interested in axon guidance, and I followed his work avidly some years ago. He was publishing about netrins, signaling molecules that affect the trajectory of growing neurons, while I was studying growing neurons in grasshopper embryos. I met him several times, I attended talks he gave at various meetings, it was hard to avoid Tessier-Lavigne.

Our careers followed very different paths, though. I ended up teaching at a small liberal arts college, while he got a position at UCSF, and then was CSO at Genentech, and then was president of Rockefeller University, was on the boards of various pharmaceutical companies, and finally was president of Stanford University. He was a major go-getter, running gigantic factory-style labs, getting regularly published in Science and Nature and Cell. It was a life that looked horrible to me, just as my life of obscurity and teaching would have looked horrible to him, if ever he had deigned to notice me.

Why would I have disliked the prestigious path he took in science? Because he turned himself into a manager, a guy who was disconnected from the science that was being done in his massively well-funded labs. Ick. I’d rather play at the bench and help students get enthusiastic about doing science.

I may have chosen wisely, because now Tessier-Lavigne has been compelled to resign as an investigation found evidence of fraud in his work. Yikes. This is bad.

The Board of Trustees’ inquiry stopped short of accusing Tessier-Lavigne — who has been Stanford’s president since 2016 — of fraud, saying there’s no evidence he “personally engaged in research misconduct.”

However, it was concluded that five papers on which Tessier-Lavigne was a principal author included work from “some members of labs overseen by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne” who had “either engaged in inappropriate manipulation of research data or engaged in deficient scientific practices, resulting in significant flaws in those papers.”

When the issues emerged, “Tessier-Lavigne took insufficient steps to correct mistakes in the scientific record,” the board’s report said.

This is what happens when you become an over-worked administrator with your fingers in too many pies. That does not excuse him — he has his name on so many papers, and getting an authorship entails significant responsibilities — and it just tells you the kind of peril ambition can put you in.

I’ve been teaching about netrins and robo and neuropilins and all these molecules in neurodevelopment for years. Am I going to have to put an asterisk by the source papers and review their validity now? I’m hoping the descent into sloppiness was a late-career problem that doesn’t call into question all the fundamental stuff he did.


  1. wzrd1 says

    I’m amazed he didn’t disavow knowledge that his name was on the papers, as others have tried to do.
    Of course, a few years back, there was a stink raised over scientists finding their names listed on papers that they never had heard of.
    All, benefits that come with the publish or perish system. I’ll not even go into some recent AI authored papers…

  2. says

    “I’m amazed he didn’t disavow knowledge that his name was on the papers”
    That’s hard to do when you’re the senior author. ;-)

  3. chrislawson says

    Doesn’t look good for him. As you say, the principal author has a duty to ensure the quality of the research, and the head of the lab has a duty to promote a culture of scientific integrity. Even if he can show the dodgy data was slipped past him rather than his own work, he has failed in both responsibilities. And five papers in trouble? That makes me think they’re the tip of an iceberg.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    The obvious solution to the workload: clones.
    If you have alien-type clones like the ones in ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, their telepathic connwction even means, what one learns, all of them learns.
    There are other types of swarm intelligence, but they do not tend to.look human. The faculty might get upset.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 birgerjohansson
    There are other types of swarm intelligence, but they do not tend to.look human. The faculty might get upset.

    Considering some faculty members I have seen in my chequered career, they might fit in.

  6. chris61 says

    Digitally imaged Western blots that have been inappropriately manipulated account for probably 90% of NIH investigated research fraud. So anything this dude published that didn’t rely on digitally imaged Western blots is probably still valid.

  7. Dr. Pablito says

    Take note that it was the student newspaper at Stanford that initially started digging into hills dodgy papers which forced the university to do a full investigation. The paper was interested in undetstandiNg his work and his corporate connections, but became convinced that he was involved in shenanigans, because they were untrained, outside observers being critical and not deferential. The university and Tessier-Lavigne fought against the student paper and its journalists every step of the way. It was crappy, what they tried to do to those students.

  8. Jazzlet says

    Dr. Palito @ 8
    Good on those students for sticking to the truth! That is the kinnd of behaviour that ought to get them good jobs.

  9. wzrd1 says

    birgerjohansson @ 5, no equal opportunity for non-human space aliens?! Now you know why nobody wants to make first contact with you bald assed savage monkeys.
    I’m contacting the EEOSA office to have this planet blackhole listed.

  10. dangerousbeans says

    Yeah, i don’t have to give him presumption of innocence and I’m not. I bet he knew about it