Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who will step down from his position Aug. 31, was initially accused of scientific misconduct, but that’s not why he lost his job. He lost it because he failed to adequately lead his labs, and because of the repercussions that failure had for his leadership of a premier research institution. In his own words, Tessier-Lavigne resigned because Stanford “needs a president whose leadership is not hampered” by discussions of problems with his own research. As someone who studies and instructs graduate students on the responsible conduct of research, I am encouraged by what I see in this case as a step towards expecting more from researchers.
This sad and career-devastating story from the US isn’t a case of how alleged research misconduct can end a promising career. Instead, it illustrates the degree to which leaders of scientific institutions are expected to take a leadership role in the culture of practice within their institutions. This should serve as a salutary lesson to current leaders of research institutions worldwide. Our approach to research integrity and research practice needs to be about resourcing reflective practice, not just compliance with rules. If we fail to do so, we might face similarly hard consequences.
By the usual metrics of funding, publications, and recognition, Tessier-Levigne was clearly a leader in his field. But the panel investigating the accusations was tasked with assessing his “approach to correcting issues or errors in the scientific record” and his “management and oversight of his scientific laboratories.” They concluded that he “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.” Moreover, they noted that given the “unusual frequency of manipulation and/or substandard scientific practices” in his labs across many years and different locations, “there may have been opportunities to improve laboratory oversight and management.”
To put it simply, he failed to foster a culture of research integrity and model it for his trainees and collaborators by confronting allegations quickly and openly.