Published: Saturday, 21 August 2021 18:18
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) on Friday fired the prominent biologist David Sabatini after an investigation of his workplace behavior. Sabatini at the same time resigned from the Whitehead Institute, the non-profit research organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts where his large HHMI-supported lab was located.
“David Sabatini…is no longer associated with either the Whitehead Institute or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, effective immediately,” the Whitehead Institute’s director Ruth Lehmann wrote in an email to staff. An investigation by an outside law firm, she wrote, “found that Dr. Sabatini violated the Institute’s policies on sexual harassment among other policies unrelated to research misconduct.”
A spokeswoman for HHMI, which had funded Sabatini’s work at the institute since 2008, wrote “HHMI is committed to providing an equitable and inclusive work environment for all our employees.,…HHMI has ended Dr. Sabatini's appointment as an Investigator, after a determination that he violated HHMI's workplace behavior policy.”
Sabatini remains a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Whitehead Institute members have faculty appointments. “MIT has not fired Prof. Sabatini,” its vice president and general counsel Mark DiVincenzo wrote in an email. In a subsequent emailed statement, a MIT spokeswoman added: “An extensive investigation and report by an outside law firm retained by the Whitehead Institute has found violations of multiple Whitehead policies, including its sexual harassment policy. MIT’s senior administration is reviewing the report and determining next steps in response to these findings, up to and including revocation of tenure proceedings.”
Lehmann’s email to Whitehead employees added that the Whitehead Institute hired the firm Hinkley, Allen & Snyder to investigate after a campus climate survey conducted last winter “identified issues of particular concern in the Sabatini lab.”
Lehmann wrote that the firing will have “significant implications” for the 39 people who worked in the Sabatini lab, which focuses on the mechanisms that regulate growth and metabolism in mammals. All 39 will be meeting with Whitehead human resources personnel next week, she wrote, with the aim of transitioning them smoothly to other situations.
As a student, Sabatini discovered the mTOR kinase signaling pathway, a central regulator of growth and aging that doesn’t function properly in common diseases including cancer. He has continued to focus on the pathway, discovering many of its key components. In 2016, he was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which has recently begun ejecting members whose institutions found them guilty of sexual harassment.
Sabatini did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Lehmann was among several prominent biologists who published a letter in Science in 2017 arguing that US biomedical institutions are not doing enough to combat gender discrimination.
Update (21 August 10:30 am): This story has been updated with statements from HHMI, the Whitehead Institute and MIT, and has been corrected to reflect that MIT has not fired Sabatini.
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