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.