Top US biologist sacked after sexual harassment investigation

Nobel contender David Sabatini’s future at MIT remains unclear after he was let go by Boston research institute and top US science funder

August 27, 2021
Source: MIT

A prominent US biologist once tipped to win a Nobel Prize has been fired from two leading American research institutions after an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.

David Sabatini’s long association with the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, an independent research organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his large Howard Hughes Medical Institute-backed (HHMI) laboratory was based, was terminated with immediate effect following an investigation into his workplace behaviour, it has been announced.

In an email to staff, the institute’s director Ruth Lehmann also confirmed that he was no longer associated with the HHMI, a leading charitable scientific funder, after an investigation by a law firm commissioned by the organisation found that Professor Sabatini had “violated the institute’s policies on sexual harassment among other Whitehead policies unrelated to research misconduct.”

A letter from HHMI’s president Erin O’Shea sent on 23 August to staff members also confirmed it had “ended the appointment of investigator David Sabatini on Friday, August 20 because of serious policy violations.”

“Whitehead commissioned an institute-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion survey, which uncovered issues in Professor Sabatini’s lab,” explained Professor O’Shea, who added that this had “led to an independent investigation, which found that Professor Sabatini violated Whitehead’s policies on sexual harassment, among other policies.”

Professor O’Shea added that both organisations were committed to helping the 39 members of Professor Sabatini’s lab with a “transition that enables them to continue pursuing their research and career goals”.

“HHMI staff are collaborating with our colleagues at Whitehead and MIT to ensure all lab members are supported,” she said, adding that “sexual harassment, bullying, and intimidation have no place in an HHMI work environment.

“HHMI supervisors, including investigators…are responsible and accountable for maintaining a work environment for their group or laboratory that is consistent with HHMI policy,” Professor O’Shea concluded.

Professor Sabatini is also a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has strong links to the Whitehead Institute, whose members are all MIT faculty.

The university has yet to state what action it will take against Dr Sabatini, one of the discoverers of the mTOR protein, a key regulator of growth in animals, which, when disrupted, is linked to diseases such as cancer and epilepsy.

In 2016 Thomson Reuters named him and his collaborators among the likely winners for that year’s medicine Nobel award, based on an analysis of citations linked to mTOR, although the prize was eventually won by Japanese cell expert Yoshinori Ohsumi.

In a statement, MIT said that it “takes complaints regarding harassment seriously” and its “senior administration is reviewing the [Whitehead Institute] report and determining next steps in response to these findings, up to and including revocation of tenure proceedings”.

“We are committed to supporting the MIT students who work with Dr. Sabatini,” MIT continued, adding that it would be “engaging individually with students to help transition their studies and ensure the successful continuation of their academic and research goals”.

Professor Sabatini, who joined the Whitehead as a fellow in 1997 and became a member in 2002, has been approached for comment by Times Higher Education.

The departure of Dr Sabatini from the Whitehead Institute comes amid growing action on the issue of sexual harassment in US science.

In June, the US National Institutes of Health revealed that it had cut off grant support for 75 researchers for sexual harassment and other kinds of personal misbehaviour since 2018, many of which followed the creation of a hotline and website for anonymous reports of sexual harassment.

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Reader's comments (2)

What a sad story!
‘When the balls are full, the brain is empty‘ Academics not wanting to risk ‘empty brains‘ hunt for how to leak the balls ... unfortunately at others’ expense and often great risk to careers /reputation Basil jide fadipe.