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

June 22, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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