Posted by: Dan | July 26, 2006

Rock-star Scientist: David Baltimore

Starting a few days ago with Morgan Spurlock’s quote in Time Magazine, calling for the return of “rock-star scientists,” a number of science bloggers have commented, and Shelley at Retrospectacle applauded the validation of scientific authority figures as people “worth listening to.”

This got me thinking about just who the rock-star scientists of our generation are. I could come up with a long list of notable scientists, but I’d like to acknowledge Nobel-laureate David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine at the age of 37, for “discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell.” And, since 1997, Baltimore has been the president of the California Institute of Technology.

Recently, at the 2006 AAAS Conference, Dr. Baltimore was named President-elect of the prestigious body, and gave a bold speech lamenting American policies in and out of science:

But then, Dr. Baltimore went on, he began to read about the administration’s embrace of the theory of the unitary executive, the idea that the executive branch has the power or even the obligation to act without restraint from Congress. And he began to see in a new light widely reported episodes of government scientists being restricted in what they could say in public.

“It’s no accident that we are seeing such an extensive suppression of scientific freedom,” he said. “It’s part of the theory of government now, and it’s a theory we need to vociferously oppose.” Far from twisting science to suit its own goals, he said, the government should be “the guardian of intellectual freedom.”

Baltimore has a long record of such science advocacy, having several outstanding administrative and public policy achievements to his credit. In the mid-1970s, he played an important role in creating a consensus on national science policy regarding recombinant DNA research. He served as founding director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT from 1982 until 1990. An early advocate of federal AIDS research, Baltimore co-chaired the 1986 National Academy of Sciences committee on a National Strategy for AIDS and was appointed in 1996 to head the National Institutes of Health AIDS Vaccine Research Committee.

Baltimore’s numerous honors include the 1970 Gustave Stern Award in Virology, 1971 Eli Lilly and Co. Award in Microbiology and Immunology, 1999 National Medal of Science, and 2000 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1974, and is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of both the Royal Society of London and the French Academy of Sciences. He has published more than 600 peer-reviewed articles.

For most people outside of science, however, Baltimore is best known for his role in an affair of alleged scientific misconduct. In 1986, Baltimore had co-authored a scientific paper on immunology with Thereza Imanishi-Kari and others. Margot O’Toole, a researcher in Imanishi-Kari’s lab could not reproduce some of the experiments in the paper and accused Imanishi-Kari of fabricating the data. Baltimore initially refused to retract the paper although he did later (Imanishi-Kari did not sign the retraction). Since the research had been funded by the U.S. federal government through the National Institutes of Health, the matter was taken up by the United States Congress, where it was aggressively pursued by, among others, Representative John Dingell. Largely on the basis of these findings, NIH’s fraud unit, then called the Office of Scientific Integrity, accused Dr. Imanishi-Kari in 1991 of falsifying data and recommended she be barred from receiving research grants for 10 years. Due to the ensuing controversy, in 1991 Baltimore was forced by his scientific peers to resign from the presidency of Rockefeller University, to which he had been appointed only one year earlier. An extensive file on the case, collected by the mathematician Serge Lang, was published in the journal Ethics and Behaviour in January 1993. In 1996, a newly-constituted HHS appeals panel, appointed by the federal government reviewed the case again and dismissed the charges of misconduct against Imanishi-Kari. Baltimore is admired by many in the scientific community for standing behind a junior faculty member at great personal and professional cost. (Wikipedia)

I would say that David Baltimore qualifies as a “rock-star” of science, but one that gets entirely too little acknowledgement outside of the biomedical sciences.

Now, I don’t frequently do memes, much less start them, but I was wondering who a few of my blogging friends think might qualify as a scientist rock-star: Bora, RPM, and Hsien Lei, would you care to offer some thoughts?



  1. This one is obvious: Greg Gaffin

    Dr. Gregory Walter Graffin III (born November 6, 1964 in Racine, Wisconsin), better known as Greg Graffin, is the vocalist and co-founder of the punk rock band Bad Religion.

    Graffin double majored in anthropology and geology as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles. He would also earn a masters degree in geology from UCLA and received his Ph.D. in evolutionary paleontology from Cornell University. However, according to a video clip originally from the Bad Religion official website and also available from The Cornell Evolution Project homepage, the PhD thesis was officially a Zoology PhD thesis, supervised by William B. Provine at Cornell University. The thesis was entitled “Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology”. It is described as being essentially an evolutionary biology PhD but having also relevance to history and philosophy of science.

    Maybe he’s not as famous for his science as Baltimore, but I’d say he’s got a more legitimate claim to the ‘rock star’ label.

  2. Of course he’s not so famous that I didn’t mis-spell his name…

  3. Graffin’s thesis was more philosophy of science than actual science. Dexter Holland (lead singer of the Offspring) is allegedly working on a PhD in molecular biology

  4. […] Dan Rhoads at Migrations was the reason I was talking about rocking the house with genetics in Cory’s interview. Dan highlighted David Baltimore as a rockstar scientist and asked who else would qualify. […]

  5. Rockin’ the Lab Coat…

    …like who? I’m really late on this, but Dan has asked us to name some rock-star scientists. He suggested Nobel Laureate David Baltimore. Baltimore isn’t a rock-star because of his guitar chops or his rotating drum kit. If you want…

  6. […] Following my post on David Baltimore, others have chimed in with their own rock-stars (and not just scientists who literally became rock-stars, or vice versa): […]

  7. […] Morgan Spurlock’s quote in Time Magazine, calling for the return of “rock-star scientists”, Dan Rhoads at the Migrations blog nominates David Baltimore as his candidate. I’m not so sure. The last time I (literally) bumped into DB, he had a camelhair overcoat […]

  8. I would like to nominate myself as a scientist rockstar. After many years as a ‘jobbing musician’ in Britain, I returned to academia in 1996, having never studied science past junior school. I now have a PhD in cardiovascular development from Duke University and am actively persuing a post-doctoral position. Still singing though!!


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