Despite sexual harassment shadow, biologist David Sabatini lands job at top Czech institute
BY: MEREDITH WADMAN, source: www.science.org
David Sabatini, the high-flying biologist who lost positions at three prominent U.S. institutions after breaching sexual misconduct policies, last month began a new job as a senior scientist at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry Prague (IOCB), a powerful arm of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS). The hire has divided Czech scientists and is likely to ignite debate about whether and when institutions should give second chances to those who commit sexual misconduct.
“I am very honored to join IOCB and excited to be able to again mentor younger scientists, contribute to biological research, and participate in the scientific community,” Sabatini told Science an email. He added that he spent much of the past 2 years “of deep sorrow” in reflection. “In my new lab I will be extra vigilant to make sure that all lab members feel welcome and I will institute measures to uncover potential issues even if they are not brought to my attention. … I will try my best to not cause offense of any kind.”
IOCB Director Jan Konvalinka said in a statement: “We believe that [Sabatini] has been punished enough for his previous actions and that the research community will be served best if this brilliant scientist returns to research.” He added that IOCB “will require that Dr. Sabatini follows the same high standards of conduct and respectful behavior that is expected from every other principal investigator.”
In 2021, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute fired Sabatini, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research forced him out after an investigation by an outside law firm found he violated the institute’s sexual harassment and relationship policies. That investigation found that Sabatini conducted a clandestine sexual relationship with a woman scientist and asked her to meet him for sex on institute grounds. At the time, he was mentoring her in a program he directed while she launched a lab at the Whitehead. The investigation also found, among other behavior, that he created a lab culture that rewarded sexualized banter; implicitly threatened a faculty member who refused to make a place in his lab for a visiting woman scientist whom Sabatini later married; and created a “pervasive” fear of retaliation, for example implying there would be career consequences for lab members who reported unfavorably on him to the outside investigators or who discussed rumors that he was sexually pursuing a woman undergraduate from another institution.
Although Sabatini has admitted mistakes, he has maintained that the relationship was consensual, the probe was unfair, and his punishment disproportionate. Soon after he lost his Whitehead position, Sabatini sued the institute, its director, and the woman scientist for defamation and workplace discrimination. The woman scientist countersued. The litigation is ongoing, with the next briefing document due for filing with a Massachusetts appeals court on 24 November.
In 2022, Sabatini resigned a separate, tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which had found he violated its rules on sexual relationships by entering a relationship with the woman scientist while she was completing an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Harvard University and MIT. The same year, he dropped a job offer at New York University after Science made the offer public and student protests erupted. “I remain steadfast in believing that the truth will ultimately emerge and that I will eventually be vindicated and able to return to my research,” he said at the time.
Some of his new colleagues welcomed Sabatini’s hiring. Zuzana Kečkéšová, a molecular biologist and junior principal investigator at IOCB, knew Sabatini when she was a postdoc at the Whitehead from 2008–17. She wrote in an email: “I am well aware of the controversy. … I do not believe that striking Dr. Sabatini from the list of people who can ever hold a job again helps solve the structural problems of women in science. … We welcome him to our midst.” (Kečkéšová is also one of two “ethical proxies” at IOCB, who mediate work-related conflicts among faculty and staff.)
Several scientists noted that IOCB has been a leader in promoting workplace equity in a country whose proportion of women scientists—27%—is among the lowest in the European Union. For instance, it offers monthly child care subsidies of up to $600 for women scientists returning from parental leave. Given IOCB’s public profile as an equal opportunity employer, “I expect that the institute and its council will pay attention to Dr. Sabatini’s behavior towards female employees,” says Petr Svoboda, a molecular biologist at CAS’s Institute of Molecular Genetics, who sat on IOCB’s board until 2020. “I won’t hesitate to raise my voice if I learn about any misconduct connected with his academic activities.”
Other Czech scientists were upset. “He’s going to lead people? Oh my goodness,” says Vladimíra Petráková, a biophysicist and group leader at CAS’s J. Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry. “An independent [probe] concluded he is a sexual harasser. That sends a very bad message to all women and men in Czech academia, that this sort of behavior is acceptable and one can just then keep going with their career. … The message is that we don’t want to create a safe space for our employees and students.”
Sabatini “is dismissive and filed a defamation suit,” added Marcela Linková, a sociologist who heads the National Contact Centre for Gender and Science, part of CAS’s Institute of Sociology. “Any person in a position of power over junior colleagues who does not acknowledge the amounts of power they have and how that limits a junior person’s maneuvering space—and uses that power against that colleague—is not trustworthy for a supervisory position.”
Sabatini, who said he received several job offers, began as a senior group leader at IOCB on 1 October. He visited the institute in October 2022 at Konvalinka’s invitation and had “inspiring discussions” with scientists there, Konvalinka wrote. “What led us to hire him … was the clear complementarity of his research” with that at IOCB, Konvalinka said. Sabatini, who as a student co-discovered mTOR, a protein that regulates growth and aging, says he will continue to focus on the molecular analysis of growth regulation in animals.
Sabatini will receive startup funds from IOCB and intends to apply for grants from the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic and the European Research Council. A $25 million, 5-year pledge from New York City hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and an anonymous donor is not involved in his funding, he said.
Sabatini says he expects his lab will “probably” include 12 to 15 people when fully staffed. Asked whether he expects any difficulty in recruiting, he wrote: “I have always trained junior male and female scientists and will continue to do so. I am fortunate that many scientists have continued to reach out to me seeking to work with me.”
Konvalinka is a powerful presence in Czech science and society who was omnipresent in the media during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that although IOCB doesn’t question the right of the three U.S. institutions to make the decisions they did, “based on publicly and privately available information as well as the investigative reporting we have seen, at IOCB we would not have made the same decisions.”
His institute, too, is powerful, with a $68 million budget supporting nearly 600 scientists and a lucrative income stream from patents related to the development of key HIV and hepatitis B drugs. In 2022, patents underpinning the HIV drug tenofovir and its variants alone brought IOCB $130 million.