Billionaire New York hedge fund manager Bill Ackman built a record of going against the grain and taking whatever flack or controversy came his way.
True to form, Ackman announced last week that he and an anonymous donor had pledged $25 million over five years toward a new research lab for David Sabatini, a former star scientist from MIT and Whitehead Institute, whose career imploded in 2021 amid allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment.
“We want him up and running right away,” Ackman told the Globe this week.
Behind that upbeat tone are some sobering realities: Given Sabatini’s divisive reputation, some veteran scientists say he may struggle to find a major university or research institution willing to host his lab as he enjoyed before. Ackman’s announcement, posted on Twitter last Thursday, already has sparked a backlash by some who see these investors as turning a blind eye to workplace problems linked to Sabatini and his overall lack of contrition so far.
“There’s really nothing that can stop these kind of men from failing upwards is there?” tweeted one female researcher.
Ackman’s announcement came several days after a two-part Globe Spotlight report on the rise and precipitous fall of Sabatini, a 55-year-old Cambridge biologist who once generated Nobel Prize buzz. Ackman said his foundation and another donor, who he said has chosen to remain anonymous for now, have each committed $2.5 million a year for five years to help Sabatini resume his research.
Sabatini’s lab had focused on untangling the cellular mysteries critical in the study of neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, and aging.
Ackman, who has been a vocal supporter of Sabatini’s since his lab shut down, has maintained Sabatini was treated unjustly.
The announcement from Ackman was cheered on social media by a group of Sabatini’s former mentees, who tweeted: “Thank you, Bill, for your faith in David!”
Details, such as where Sabatini may launch this lab or what structure it might have, are yet to be worked out. “It’s still super early,” Ackman said. Initial discussions among Ackman, Sabatini, and the other private funder should begin soon, he said. Ackman said their decision to start this venture came together in a matter of two days. The anonymous funder intends to eventually make themselves publicly known, according to Ackman.
Sabatini declined to comment.
For 24 years, Sabatini ran a lab at Whitehead, which grew to be among the institute’s largest, at nearly 40 people and with an annual budget of about $5 million, largely funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But his career there ended when a 2021 Whitehead investigation found, among other things, that he had a past secret sexual relationship with a Whitehead colleague, Kristin Knouse, over whom he had a career-influencing role, in violation of Whitehead’s policies governing workplace relationships.
The investigation, conducted by law firm Hinckley Allen, also substantiated complaints from some lab members who said Sabatini enabled a toxic and bullying atmosphere. Some female scientists told the Globe they reported Sabatini and his lab to the authorities, adding that they “witnessed and experienced” a sexualized work environment and other toxic elements while they worked there, as echoed in the Hinckley Allen report.
“I was getting ready to leave the lab and spoke to Whitehead authorities because I did not want others to go through the same things I experienced,” one former member told the Globe.
In the wake of Ackman’s announcement, one woman who worked in Sabatini’s lab questioned if Sabatini deserved such a career lifeline.
“Every year, hundreds of scientists give up the dream to be a professor because there are so many more brilliant young researchers than there are openings,” said Anne Carpenter, a scientist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge who trained with Sabatini from about 2003-2006. “Why is it more a tragedy for someone to lose their lab than for any of these, who are committed to making science a more equitable place, to never have the chance?”
Knouse, through her lawyer, declined to comment on Ackman’s announcement. A spokesperson for Whitehead director Ruth Lehmann also declined to comment.
Dozens of Sabatini’s former trainees defended the lab’s culture in interviews with the Globe, saying the toxic portrait painted by investigators does not resemble the lab they knew.
“We would describe [the Sabatini lab] as the best times of our lives, the best lab environment of our careers,” said one former member.
Sabatini’s supporters are encouraged the scientist may now have a viable path back to work. Jeffrey Flier, former dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard, has long questioned whether Sabatini was dealt with fairly at Whitehead. In a recent Globe interview and in a post on Twitter, Flier said he believes authorities “meted out markedly excessive punishment,” for Sabatini’s relationship with Knouse.
Some scientists who have run labs said Sabatini likely faces an uphill battle securing lab space at an academic research center, even with substantial funding, given the serious allegations against him and the pending litigation. Sabatini has sued Whitehead, its director Lehmann, and Knouse for defamation, while Knouse has sued him for sexual harassment and retaliation.
“I think the money won’t be a factor,” said a prominent scientist in the Boston area, who asked to remain anonymous due to the controversy generated in this case. “The reputational risk to an institution is so much greater.”
The scientist suggested a small institution, or even a university abroad, may be more receptive to taking in someone with strong funding despite the political risks.
Flier also said that any institution that offers him a position could open itself to criticism and face political pressure, similar to what happened to New York University when it vetted Sabatini for a possible job in 2022. When word leaked the school was interested in him, a sharp campus backlash erupted. NYU leaders decided it was not feasible to hire Sabatini in the face of such opposition.
Details of the Ackman offer were first reported by the publication Science, which was also first to publish news of the possible NYU offer.
Sabatini could potentially rent space and establish a lab without an academic position, Flier said. “You hire people to do the experiments, you work with them, you write up papers, and try to get them published. The goal could be just to do [the kind of science] he was doing before.”
A longtime principal science investigator in the Boston area who is not connected to the Sabatini case said building a private lab from scratch would, in fact, be a tremendous challenge. Some of the specialized equipment needed to run experiments is extremely expensive, and requires trained people to operate.
“If you’re going to establish your own lab as an island, that would be . . . difficult,” said the investigator, who also asked not to be named to avoid being pulled into the controversy. “It would be an interesting experiment — I can’t really think of an example where it’s been done.”
Ackman, the founder and chief executive of Pershing Square Capital Management in New York City, is no stranger to controversy himself. The New York Times last March wrote that Ackman’s company “was known as one of the most pugnacious activist investors, willing to wage noisy public battles against companies . . . to force changes in their strategies,” though Ackman claimed his firm was switching to a less confrontational path.
Ackman said he is not personally close to Sabatini, but came to know him through the scientist’s volunteer work for Ackman’s foundation, which provides grants for scientific research. Ackman’s charity, Pershing Square Foundation, has committed more than $600 million to an array of causes, according to the foundation. Ackman and his wife, Neri Oxman, are the foundation’s co-trustees. A year ago, Ackman publicly defended Sabatini at his foundation’s annual dinner in Manhattan, in comments that made their way into the media.
Some veteran Boston-area scientists said Sabatini’s effort to reopen a lab may also depend on his internal reflections. A longtime principal investigator said he thinks Sabatini’s career revival chances may depend on how much he is willing to acknowledge at least some mistakes and “fully committing to righting their wrongs.”
“People should be given a second chance if they really demonstrate a serious commitment to warranting that second chance,” he said.
Allison DeAngelis, a reporter for STAT, and Meghan Irons, a Globe correspondent, contributed to this report.