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Uproar over sale of iconic Carnegie Institution headquarters to Qatar exposes deeper tensions

The 1908 beaux-arts headquarters of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., is being sold to Qatar. 

Adam Fagen/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA

A decision by the venerable Carnegie Institution for Science to sell its iconic Washington, D.C., headquarters to the government of Qatar has ignited long-simmering discontent with an imminent restructuring of the 120-year-old organization and with its management.

Last week, after Carnegie President Eric Isaacs announced 2 April that the institute had sold the building to Qatar for an undisclosed amount, more than 140 Carnegie scientists, students, and staff members wrote to Isaacs and the board of trustees, noting what they called Qatar’s dismal human rights record. They urged them to find another buyer for the 1908 beaux-arts building, a D.C. landmark 1.5 kilometers from the White House. The sale was only the beginning of their complaints. “Qatar was the gas thrown on a fire that already was burning,” one senior Carnegie scientist says.

“I am very, very concerned” about the cultural change at Carnegie and the top-down nature of the reorganization, says Yixian Zheng, the director of Carnegie’s embryology department. That plan will consolidate the institute’s three life sciences departments into a new, 12,600-square-meter research building in Pasadena, California. “In my opinion, this is a national problem of the corporatization of academic institutions. It is destroying people’s freedom to do science. And it has played out in a very acute way at Carnegie, which is dear to my heart.”

But Isaacs and board vice chair David Thompson say the consolidation, which includes a new global ecology-focused collaboration with the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), will propel outstanding science at Carnegie. And they say the sale is essential to funding it. The sale “is part of a multiyear strategic shift for Carnegie,” says Thompson, co-founder of Orbital ATK, an aerospace and defense technology company that is now part of Northrop Grumman. “I’m convinced that over the next 5 to 7 years it’s going to make a tremendous difference for what we can do.”

The departments to be consolidated in Pasadena are plant biology and global ecology, which are currently located at Stanford University, and embryology (or developmental biology), located at Johns Hopkins University. The Carnegie Observatories are already headquartered in Pasadena, and earth and planetary sciences will remain in Northwest D.C.

Robert Hazen, a Carnegie mineralogist, says the plan makes sense. “I find very compelling the vision that Eric [Isaacs] has put forth,” he says. “When you start bringing in the concept of ecology and how planets work with individual organisms and how ecosystems work you have a tremendous opportunity … to address a lot of the questions that are profoundly important to the way our planet is changing today.”

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded the institution in 1902 as an independent organization devoted to increasing basic scientific knowledge. Today, 53 Carnegie scientists run labs at five locations; the institution’s staff number 400 and its 2021 budget is $87 million.

But the impending sale of the building to Qatar betrays the institution’s values, the letter writers say. “Carnegie … was established to apply ‘knowledge to the improvement of mankind,’” one letter read. “Knowing the record of the Qatari government, an oppressive, brutal, and misogynistic regime, we cannot ethically engage in a business transaction with it.” An annual State Department report released last month notes that Qatar restricts free expression, criminalizes homosexuality, legally enshrines second-class citizenship for women, and failed in 2020 to protect migrant workers from abuse. “This sale says, particularly to women and minorities, that Carnegie Science is not fully committed to [diversity, equity and inclusion],” a second letter says.

Isaacs told Science that he and the 18-member board of trustees, who unanimously approved the sale to Qatar, “thought long and hard” about Qatar’s human rights record. “In the end, the decision was to go with what was best for Carnegie science,” he says. “This was a decision to convert as much of our capital into science as possible. … This was a business transaction.” The sale will allow Carnegie scientists to do much of their research “with internal funds,” rather than grants, Thompson adds.

The Qatari government plans to use the building to house its embassy, according to Washington Business Journal. The embassy did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The proceeds from the sale will significantly underwrite the construction of a “brand new, state of the art, biology and chemistry and environmental sciences building” in Pasadena, Isaacs says. CalTech has made the land available free of charge, across the street from the future site of its own new sustainability science building. Carnegie’s new building will house up to 25 principal investigators under a new director. Administration staff at its headquarters will primarily relocate to a separate campus in Northwest D.C.

An artist’s conception of a planned Carnegie life science research building in Pasadena, California. 

Courtesy of HOK

Isaacs and the board say the consolidation will increase synergy across the departments, that CalTech is enthusiastic, and that both institutions will benefit from collaborations focused on global ecology. The total commitment including construction, staffing, and moving expenses for employees now located at Stanford and Johns Hopkins will be about $125 million, says Thompson, who is also a CalTech trustee.

But some life scientists, who say the consolidation was planned without their input, are not enthusiastic. “The notion that by just smashing us together in a place near the CalTech campus, brilliance is gonna emerge, where is the evidence for that?” asks Steve Farber, a molecular physiologist in the department of embryology. “Working on CRISPR and genomes is much different than working on global ecology. It’s forcing together people who work at very different scales.”

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins Carnegie campus, where embryology is housed today, also worry their crucial access to graduate students will be cut by about 50% because CalTech is a much smaller school with fewer biology and related graduate students.

The Carnegie campus at Johns Hopkins is “a robust place with a long-term future and they are shutting that down,” including a 2005 building tailored for the department’s needs, says Susanne Garvey, who was director of development from 1992 to 2017. “It’s like throwing away a piece of clothing that you wore once.”

Other alienated scientists say that the Pasadena move is in keeping with a series of decisions by Carnegie presidents and the board since 2014. They allege that these decisions undermined the 120-year-old institution’s culture of small science and independent inquiry.   

Some scientists cite a failure to replace outstanding faculty who left Carnegie in response to the changing culture; for instance, the global ecology department has just one principal investigator. “These are money people whose biggest interest is to increase the endowment,” says Wolf Frommer, the former director of Carnegie plant biology who left in 2017 and is now at Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf. “They have given up basically listening to the scientists and [are] just following their own path.”

In the old Carnegie, “the trustees would come and visit our labs, look in our microscopes and be excited by our work. In the new Carnegie that just stopped,” says Marnie Halpern, a developmental neurobiologist who left Carnegie’s embryology department last year, after 26 years, to become head of molecular and systems biology at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine. She left, she says, because she felt she didn’t have a voice in institutional decision-making and because “leadership lost sight of [Carnegie’s] incredible vision.”

But former Stanford biologist Matt Scott, Isaacs’s predecessor as Carnegie president, says the decisions by Isaacs and the board were needed to ensure that kind of science can continue. “It was and is evident that to preserve the kinds of scientific freedoms that Carnegie scientists and I cherish, there would have to be substantial change.”

Source: Science Mag