March 3, 2024

Marc Tessier-Lavigne
Marc Tessier-Lavigne at a Stanford press conference in February 2016.Patrick Tehan (AP)

The president of one of the Olympus of thought in the United States has fallen. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the president of Stanford University (in Spain rector), has submitted his resignation on Wednesday after a review of 12 investigations of which he was a part concluded that they had “manipulated the information” and others lacked the necessary rigor to defend the answers he presented. This has forced him to retract three studies and correct two others. The president will leave the institution located south of San Francisco on August 31.

A special committee was in charge of evaluating the investigations where the main author was Tessier-Lavigne, a renowned neuroscientist who became president of the private university in September 2016. The conclusions of his studies were published in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science between 2001 and March 2021. In seven studies he is listed as co-author, while in another five he is listed as lead scientist. The findings presented “serious problems,” according to Elisabeth Bik, a biologist with long experience uncovering academic errors. Bik’s statements, presented on the PubPeer website, where several scientists submit some works to their peers, opened the investigation against the most powerful executive at the university.

Five scientists hired by the committee found various errors over several decades. Not all of them were directly attributable to Tessier-Lavigne, but to the team he led at the University of California, San Francisco, Stanford, and Genentech, a biotech company that is part of Roche, where he worked for several years until he became chief scientist. “Multiple members of the laboratories supervised by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne over the years were involved in the manipulation of research data, or at a minimum, had some poor practices,” the special committee report states. At Genetech alone, Tessier-Lavigne led a team of 1,400 scientists working on research on cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and disorders of the immune system.

The irregularities and misconduct detected were the digital manipulation of some images, made to “beautify” public presentations; the repetition of illustrations that were actually from different experiments and other flaws caused by lack of rigor. He was also accused of fraud for a work published in 2009 in Nature on a protein and its impact on the degenerative process of neurons. The committee, however, ensures that this did not exist and that the accusation is actually a confusion between accusations that have been made to the press and by scientists to Genentech for several years (and that have been denied).

Review of 50,000 documents

The panel of specialists makes it clear that Tessier-Lavigne on some occasions did not know or was directly involved in the irregularities detected after reviewing 50,000 documents obtained from institutions, specialized newspapers and the defendant’s digital archive. The process also included interviewing 50 people, among these seven the president of Stanford. However, the school’s Board of Trustees concluded that the report was negative enough to impact his ability to lead the institution.

This has been the defense that the academic has used this Wednesday, by making public his intention to separate from office. “The report refutes the accusations of fraud and misconduct that were made against me, but for the good of the university, I have made the decision to step aside,” said the scientist. In another statement, Tessier-Lavigne said that “it is clear” that he must retract the conclusions he reached in some of his investigations. “I will do it as soon as possible,” he stated.

Retraction causes significant damage to a scientist’s reputation. Only four scientific trials out of 10,000 are retracted, according to a database that follows this process among the international scientific community.

Tessier-Lavigne, 63, is Stanford’s 11th president. In September 2016, he took over from John Hennessy. The university community then highlighted the profile of the new head of the faculty, a Canadian who was the first in his family to have a university degree. He entered higher education to build an impressive career. He graduated in Physics from McGill University and later in Philosophy and Physiology from Oxford, where he was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He continued postgraduate studies at University College London and subsequently did his postdoctoral research at Columbia.

The special committee has highlighted in its conclusions the “distinguished” scientific career of Tessier-Lavigne, who taught in Biological Sciences at Stanford between 2001 and 2005. He has also taught biochemistry, biophysics and anatomy. “He has been widely recognized for his seminal contributions to the field of neuroscience, including his groundbreaking work in the field of axon guidance,” the paper states.

Tessier-Lavigne also chaired until 2011 the Rockefeller University of New York, one of the most important research and educational centers in the eastern United States. Throughout her career she has focused her efforts on treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In 2015 he was one of the co-founders of a biotech firm called Denali, which developed drugs that combat cognitive decline.

In 2016, when he became president of Stanford, Tessier-Lavigne expressed his admiration for “the great universities whose research has had an enormous impact in accelerating the progress of civilization.” In his opinion, the university he guided for seven years was in that select group. Neglect of his work has forced him to leave the top of that world.

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