March 1-7, 2002
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Basic research, collegiality on laureate’s agenda
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David Baltimore
Photo by Jenny Gerow
David Baltimore

Basic research, collegiality on laureate’s agenda

By Fariss Samarrai

“Research universities are the most powerful force in America,” declared David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and president of the California Institute of Technology. “Industry develops technology and makes money, but the ideas and understanding of important societal challenges start at the research universities.”

Baltimore, one of the most influential biologists of his generation, spoke Feb. 21 to students and faculty at the McLeod Hall Auditorium. Awarded the Nobel Prize at the age of 37 for his work in virology, he has also had a profound influence upon national science policy on such issues as recombinant DNA research and the AIDS epidemic. His accomplishments include expertise in multiple roles, including researcher, educator, administrator and public advocate for science and engineering.

“Basic science leads to new technologies, and it is interdisciplinary interaction, the fusion of science and technology, that defines research universities,” Baltimore said. “The most difficult scientific and technological challenges will be solved only through the combined skills of everybody at our research universities. People must talk across barriers, and faculty, administrators, students and postdocs must create new ways to promote interaction and collegiality.

“It’s not elite to cure disease,” Baltimore continued. “It’s honorable. But the most important and difficult problems will be solved at the elite institutions.” The best institutions will succeed “by not trying to be all things to all people,” but rather by staying smaller and focused on science and technology. “As research universities grow, we must put in place mechanisms that allow for close interaction,” he said.

As a professor at MIT in the early 1970s, Baltimore’s investigations focused on questions about the relationship between DNA and RNA in a cell’s internal functions — specifically, on how cancer-causing RNA viruses manage to infect a healthy cell. One result of this research was the identification of the enzyme, reverse transcriptase. Baltimore shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for this discovery, which has greatly expanded scientists’ understanding of retroviruses like HIV.

The Forum for Contemporary Thought sponsored Baltimore’s talk as part of its year-long series of events, “Science and Society”, focusing on the broad implications of scientific research. The Faculty Senate and the Institute for Practical Ethics coordinate the events. The senate initiated the multidisciplinary forum, which is funded by the College of Arts & Sciences, the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics and the schools of Law, Engineering, Education, Architecture and Nursing.


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