War of the Roses (and Vertebrates)

Summers' narrow-minded scientific agenda threatens plant and whole animal-biology

At the end of Divinity Avenue sits the Harvard Herbaria, all but literally buried in the construction and renovation projects that will advance the University’s molecular biology labs and offices into the 21st century. But those espousing the widely-held stereotype that University President Lawrence H. Summers is an anti-humanities, pro-sciences economist will find no evidence for the latter half of this epithet in this quiet corner of the North Yard.

Here, Harvard’s Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) department toils away at some of the most important questions for mankind with help from its internationally esteemed collections. Meanwhile, Summers—who declined to comment for this column through a spokesperson—looks the other way, rehashing his hollow rhetoric about undergraduates knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome and angling to position Harvard as a leader in the biomedical sciences. This neglect of the other “half” (well, a little more) of the sciences may soon take its toll, as the OEB department—like others that seem to have fallen out of Summers’ good graces—continues to face stunted growth possibilities and an inability to plan without a commitment to its importance from central administration.

OEB’s scope is no less than the tens of millions of species that inhabit this planet, and its questions concern no less than their origin, evolution and preservation. Pellegrino University Professor E.O. Wilson—one of the pioneers of biodiversity studies—advanced his now world-famous conservation studies here at Harvard. The OEB’s Herbaria houses 5.5 million plant specimens, filed in rooms of endless metal chests, including the largest, most important collection in the world of Chinese plant species; the Museum of Comparative Zoology has an impressive 21 million specimens to its name.

But OEB’s growth today is badly stunted, with no room to fill new appointments and limited space to expand these rapidly growing collections. The Museum of Comparative Zoology inhabits an old building with limited modern climate control. And substantial expansion of the sciences into the North Yard over the next decade has largely overlooked OEB; while the original master plan of a few years back would have given them an entire building, the only place they might find space now is in a new northwest facility planned for interdisciplinary collaborative labs.

Several OEB professors told me that they’ve noticed a sea change from the previous administration of former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, himself a noted chemist, and the president he served, Neil L. Rudenstine—from whom they describe consistently favorable treatment. In part, this is due to a growing trend at Harvard towards centralization—with Allston and the growing push towards interdisciplinary—that increasingly pits science departments against each other. (But far from actually promoting interdepartmental collaboration, this instead seems to have generated an attitude of suspicion, where each department worries their neighbor will steal the limited lab space under works.)


More worrying, though, is a belief by many professors that the neglect of OEB is actually due to Summers’ medical, microbiological mania. It is true that Summers’ public remarks on sciences, from his inaugural address to his speech at the announcement of the Broad Institute (a collaborative genomics project involving Harvard, MIT and the Whitehead Institute), have largely focused on molecular rather than evolutionary and whole-animal or plant biology. The thrust of the preliminary Allston plans, moreover, would support the belief that medicine and biotechnology are where Summers sees the University’s future.

True, this push towards biotechnology is far from a uniquely Harvard trend—which partly stems from the availability of eager venture capitalists looking for the next biotechnological blockbuster. One professor joked to me that he used to consider OEB a “life science,” but a hot new scientific journal, Life Sciences, is focused on microbiology’s (marketable) applications to medical technology and boasts numerous investors on its subscriber list. But in a world which is increasingly neglecting the importance of evolutionary sciences, Harvard should be a role model, not a reflection of the market’s whims. And other schools, notably University of California Berkeley (as well as Yale and Cornell, which have recently constructed enviable environmental science facilities), have done just fine by their organismic and evolutionary biologists.

Some professors regard the situation with cautious optimism, but agree that it is next-to-impossible to plan when many OEB scientists feel left out of the planning process and when so much is contingent and unknown. The only good that seems poised to come from adopting a defensive stance is a greater sense of unity within the OEB department.

The work that lies ahead for OEB-type departments is not insignificant: according to various estimates, only about 1.5 million species out of about 23 million are even partially described. These discoveries have important practical applications as well, for they are central to pressing political issues (global climate change) and medical research (e.g., the tree extract documented at the Herbaria, Calophyllum, that may prove effective against AIDS). If Harvard allows its ability to play a role in such important questions about our place on this planet to tarnish, its reputation will surely, and quickly, do the same.

J. Hale Russell ‘05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.