Former MIT and Whitehead Institute star biologist David Sabatini, who lost his positions after he was accused of violating sexual harassment policies in 2021, is resuming his science career, taking a post at a Czech research institute in Prague.
Sabatini, of Cambridge, confirmed in a phone call from Prague that he has accepted a position as a “senior group leader” at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, known as IOCB Prague. Sabatini said he will be recruiting staff and running a laboratory in the Czech Republic capital to investigate scientific questions in the areas of cell growth and metabolism, similar to his past research in Cambridge.
“I’m very grateful to be given the opportunity to do science again,” said Sabatini, who began working at the institute last month.
Reached by the Globe, the Prague institute’s director, Jan Konvalinka, said by email that Sabatini received “a standard renewable 3-year job contract,” and that the Czech and global research community stood to benefit from Sabatini’s second chance.
“We are aware of the past controversies involving David Sabatini and do not question the right of his previous employers to make the decisions they did,” he stated. “However, based on publicly and privately available information as well as the investigative reporting we have seen, at IOCB we would not have made the same decisions they did.
“We believe that he has been punished enough for his previous actions and that the research community will be served best if this brilliant scientist returns to research.”
The institute said it maintains a “strict ethical code of conduct” and will hold Sabatini to the same high standards expected of every principal investigator.
The IOCB statement included a comment from one of its scientists, Zuzana Keckesova, who knows Sabatini personally from her time as a postdoc at Whitehead, from 2008-17. She said she understands the “complex nature” of the controversy that derailed Sabatini’s career, but to never allow him to hold another job does not help “solve the structural problems of women in science.”
“... We are certain that he has learned from the mistakes he made and we are positive that he will become a great asset to our scientific team,” she said.
Sabatini, 55, told the Globe that he has aspirations to eventually launch a Boston-area branch of IOCB Prague, with the intention to create a binational lab. He did not detail how it would be funded.
In February, New York hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, a supporter of Sabatini, said that he and an unnamed donor together were pledging $25 million over five years toward helping the scientist resume his career. That money is not being used in his new position in Prague, Sabatini said.
The fall of Sabatini — the subject of a two-part Boston Globe Spotlight series earlier this year — has been highly controversial in the world of science.
A biologist who once generated Nobel Prize buzz, Sabatini ran a lab at Whitehead for 24 years, overseeing up to about 40 people and a $5 million annual budget. His career there ended when a 2021 Whitehead investigation found, among other things, that he had a past sexual relationship with a Whitehead colleague, Kristin Knouse, over whom he had a career-influencing role, in violation of Whitehead’s policies on workplace relationships. Investigators and some former lab members also alleged the Sabatini lab had elements of a toxic environment, though other lab members disputed that characterization and praised the lab’s culture and Sabatini’s mentorship.
After being forced out, he sued the Whitehead, its director Ruth Lehmann, and Knouse for defamation; Knouse then sued him for alleged sexual harassment and retaliation. The litigation is ongoing in Suffolk Superior Court, with no trial set yet.
New York University vetted Sabatini for a possible job in 2022, but passed on hiring him after a harsh backlash, including protests from students and faculty.
The Globe reached out to lawyers for Knouse, a spokesperson for the Whitehead and Lehmann, as well as another for Ackman. None offered comments on Sabatini’s new position.
IOCB Prague was founded in 1953, according to the institute. It is known for developments related to antivirals, such as the drug tenofovir, used to fight HIV.
In his phone interview with the Globe, Sabatini said that starting a new job “is a strange feeling.” After running one of the biggest labs at Whitehead, he is “starting from zero” and learning to navigate an entirely new grant system in Europe. His Whitehead lab was largely funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“It’s a mix of happiness and a little bit of fear,” he said, “but I’m confident I can do it.”
Sabatini first visited IOCB Prague in the fall of 2022, when the then-unemployed scientist was invited to give a scientific talk, according to IOCB.