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Across the nation, cities, schools fight over top researchers Reaching for the Stars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Richmond, Va., they were ferried about in limousines, taken to the best restaurants in town and offered a brand-new downtown facility. In Charleston, S.C., the charming historic district and the small city's quality-of-life were dangled before them. And in Baltimore, a trip to Camden Yards and tours of a downtown brimming with construction sites just begged them to consider what could be erected for them.

In other words, it was the kind of shameless civic groveling usually reserved for people with the power to hand out NFL franchises.

"We gave them the whole red-carpet treatment," a suitor from Richmond, ultimately spurned, says with a bit of a sigh. "It's what you have to do in this day and age."

But what made all the wining and dining and wheeling and dealing unique was this: The prize that the cities were competing for was a team of scientists rather than athletes, a laboratory rather than a stadium. And this time Baltimore, repeatedly rejected in its quest for an NFL franchise, was the winner.

Robert C. Gallo, who gained both renown and controversy for his role in discovering the AIDS virus, announced last month that he would bring his "Dream Team" of researchers to the University of Maryland's new Medical Biotechnology Center on West Lombard Street.

While most scientists still toil in relative obscurity, Dr. Gallo is part of an elite group of researchers being recruited with the intensity once reserved for sports figures and corporate high-fliers. They are getting big-money offers to switch jobs and ply their rarefied trade elsewhere. Often, the offers come from the private sector, raising fears of a brain drain from academia and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

How did scientists become such hot commodities?

Credit the technology boom that everyone wants to capitalize on. Seemingly every region wants to be the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle, every university is touting a new research park or biotechnology center and every governor heralds clean, high-tech industries as the cornerstone of future economic development.

And they're all scrambling for the name-brand researchers, the rainmakers, the marquee players who will provide instant prestige and attract other scientists as well as investors willing to provide financial support.

"There's a tremendous amount of competition for the best people," says Donald P. Hutchinson, head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the business group that helped coordinate the efforts to land the Gallo team.

"Everyone would like to have a star player, but they realize there aren't enough star players to go around," says Doug McQueen, acting executive director of the Association of University Related Research Parks.

"Star," of course, is a relative term. Within every field of science, there are recognized stars, but most of their names mean nothing to the science-ignorant masses.

Robert Gallo, though, is one of the few researchers whose name is recognizable beyond scientific circles. Part of that is due to his identification in 1984 of the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and the subsequent development of the blood test to detect its presence in both humans and the nation's blood supply. Part of it, too, is due to the controversy that surrounded that discovery.

Dr. Gallo, 58, was accused of failing to acknowledge that he used a French laboratory's virus samples in his work. Dr. Gallo insists that the sample from the French lab, which also isolated the virus, accidentally contaminated his own sample. He also notes that years of government investigations have failed to find him guilty of any wrongdoing.

In any event, when Dr. Gallo announced last year that he would leave the National Institutes of Health after a 30-year career, he in essence became a free agent: Have CV, will travel. With lawyers in tow and demands on the line, he went from town to town, auditioning facilities and entertaining offers. Theprize: a laboratory of scientists who planned nothing less than to seek treatments for AIDS, cancer and virus-related diseases.

The chase was on. Dr. Gallo says he started out considering nine sites and ultimately narrowed the field to Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston and Philadelphia. While Philadelphia's negotiators refused to be interviewed, those in other cities describe receptions and dinners, personal wooings by governors and mayors, hotel fruit baskets and entertainment for wives and kids.

"I think we spent more than was spent on the recruitment of Michael Jordan," jokes Dr. Bill Dewey, a vice president at Virginia Commonwealth University, where the team was offered two floors in a new biotechnology research park in downtown Richmond. "I didn't pay the bills, but it was a lot. A lot. It was a very serious offer. You recruit them like you do athletes. Some people are better than others, so they're more in demand."

Dr. Gallo's name, he says, would help boost the university's reputation within academic spheres.

"If we had Gallo, anytime we were recruiting another department chair, they would think: 'Why did Gallo go to Richmond? It must be good,' " Dr. Dewey says.

The Medical University of South Carolina had similar reasons for joining the chase.

"We felt that having someone like Gallo, with his name recognition -- of course, that's been both pro and con -- would be wonderful," says Steve Jones, executive assistant to the president of the Charleston school. "He's a wonderful mentor. His lab is very productive."

Intrigue among cities

During their respective efforts to land Dr. Gallo, the cities tried to keep an eye on each other. Intrigue abounded: Which city was pulling ahead. Which governor was getting the most face time. ("We heard the governor of Maryland had 10, 12 meetings with them; he really hustled after them," Dr. Dewey says enviously.) Even which city one team member's wife fell in love with (Charleston, although there was much sentiment among family members to stay in the Washington suburbs in which most of them live).

While some assumed Baltimore was the leading contender -- in part because Dr. Gallo and others live in Montgomery County and could commute -- it wasn't a sure thing.

"There were periods when I thought it wasn't going to work," says Michael Silver, a Baltimore-based business lawyer hired by the Gallo team to help with negotiations. "The other states were continuing to up the ante in the last couple of months."

Unlike other business negotiations, these involved more than strict bottom-line issues, Mr. Silver says. In addition to money, Dr. Gallo and his team were looking for research autonomy and access to a medical center and patients.

Dr. Gallo -- along with his two main collaborators, William Blattner, a senior epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute, and Robert Redfield, head of the cancer research center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- finally settled on Baltimore last month.

They cited the facilities at the new biotech center, the connection to the university's medical center and the personal and monetary commitments from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The state has pledged $9 million, and the city $3 million over the next three years.

The intense competition for his team was "very flattering," Dr. Gallo says. But he obviously considers the flurry of star treatment his due.

Flamboyant and outspoken, he believes he brings prestige to an institution rather than the other way around.

"I don't have to go to a Harvard or a famous place, I carry enough with me," Dr. Gallo says in characteristically blunt style. "You see opportunity in different places. You can get something done. You can make a place."

This isn't the first time he has considered packing up his lab and leaving the NIH. In 1987, Dr. Gallo talked to Johns Hopkins, Duke and Yale about much the same kind of lab that he will now establish at the University of Maryland -- a virology institute that would be affiliated with a medical center but would also work with companies to develop practical applications of its research.

The Hopkins negotiations ultimately broke down without the university's offering Dr. Gallo a home for his lab, and he stayed at NIH. Even now, those involved in the negotiations won't say on the record what happened.

"Emotionally, I wasn't ready to leave the NIH at the time," Dr. Gallo says. Now, however, after reaching the 30-year mark that qualifies him for a pension, he is.

The brain drain

In recent times, the NIH has lost a number of high-ranking scientists in a so-called "brain drain" as companies and research centers lure them away, often offering better salaries and greater autonomy than a government agency can. In addition to Dr. Gallo and Dr. Blattner, several high-ranking scientists and administrators have recently left, including NCI director Samuel Broder. While much has been made of the brain drain, one official says such departures are part of the natural in-and-out flow that all research institutes experience.

"The NIH is a wonderful place to establish a scientific career," says Dr. Michael Gottesman, the NIH deputy director for intramural research, which is the work done largely at the NIH campus in Bethesda.

"But there comes a time in a career, when you've been doing basic research all the time, that you want to see it translated into practical applications. Because of the development of the biotechnology industry, there are many more jobs available for people who formerly may have been limited to jobs in academics or the NIH."

Indeed, much as the 1940s were the era of physics and the 1950s were the era of chemistry, scientists agree that the 1990s are the era of biotechnology.

"There's no question there's been a paradigm shift in life sciences. There's been a greater recognition that there are wonderful spinoffs from life sciences research, the way there has been with chemistry in the past," says Dr. Rita R. Colwell, the president of the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute.

Dr. Colwell, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest scientific organization, has been recruited heavily over the years. Two years ago, the University of Alabama at Birmingham offered her its presidency. A salary increase plus personal lobbying by university and political leaders persuaded Dr. Colwell to stay at Maryland.

Others, though, have taken full advantage of the increasingly heated competition for biotech's leading lights. In 1992, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates gave the University of Washington $12 million to lure Leroy Hood, the developer of machines that greatly speed up the task of combing through 100,000 human genes, from the California Institute of Technology. More recently, Michael Milken tossed in $25 million for Dr. Hood to conduct genetic research into prostate cancer, which not so coincidentally afflicts the former junk-bond financier.

Willing investors

Few scientists, of course, manage to attract personal patrons for their research. But opportunities beckon for biotechnology's most promising researchers: They can jump from one post in academia to another, or from the ivory tower down to the trenches of private enterprise. Increasingly, they can find investors willing to support them in starting their own companies.

"Scientists by nature are entrepreneurial in the way they function. There's a match in the psyche of a scientist with the psyche of an entrepreneur," says Steven L. McKnight, an expert in gene regulation who spent his career with the Carnegie Institution on the Hopkins Homewood campus before he and two fellow researchers started their own company several years ago that seeks to develop new drugs.

There are plenty of scientists to move into the academic positions abandoned by those lured to private enterprise, says Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's biology department. In fact, that is part of the role of the university and the NIH: to train a scientific force that can use its knowledge elsewhere.

Cities, more so than universities and research institutes, worry about losing their researchers. The New York-based Aaron Diamond Foundation has been pumping millions of dollars in fellowship money into an effort to keep scientists from fleeing the high cost of living and other urban ills of New York City for offers in more livable cities, including Baltimore.

The other way to attract promising scientists, of course, is to give them someone they want to work with. That is what the University of Maryland says is part of the allure of landing the Gallo team.

"It's not so much Gallo as the star as this group of people that they have around them," Dr. Colwell says. "Gallo, Blattner and Redfield have extraordinarily bright young people around them. They're the next generation of stars."

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