Biochemist Howard Schachman, an advocate for research ethics, dies at 97

Howard K. Schachman, an influential biochemist who became a political and scientific activist, challenging not only California’s loyalty oath and its mandatory retirement rules but also the way fraud is dealt with in science, died Friday, Aug. 5, from complications of pneumonia at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland.

Howard Schachman

Howard Schachman, a physical biochemist and activist who championed scientific ethics.

A professor of the graduate school in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, he was 97.

Schachman worked with the National Academy of Sciences in the 1980s and ’90s to clarify and limit the reach of what he considered irresponsible prosecutions of scientific misconduct, arguing that the term “misconduct” was vague and could as easily apply to inadvertent or sloppy work as actual fraud. Instead, he argued, scientists should focus on cases of actual falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. This perspective was widely adopted in methods for adjudicating allegations of research misconduct.

“I know of no one who managed to maintain his indignation for so many years and yet deftly worked to correct the scientific system from within rather than destroy it,” said Marc Kirschner, one of Schachman’s former graduate students, who is now a professor and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard University. “There is no one who comes to mind who could replace him today.”

In 1994, when Harold Varmus became director of the National Institutes of Health, he appointed Schachman as its first ombudsman to solicit feedback on NIH policies from the people who actually conducted the research.

‘Ornery and spirited’

Upon receiving the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000, Deborah Runkle wrote for the organization that “Dr. Schachman has been at the center of the debate over the manner in which research fraud or misconduct should be addressed by the federal government. While strongly supporting government efforts to curb such misconduct in science, Dr. Schachman began a decade-long struggle to ensure that regulation would not impinge on the freedoms that allow scientists to be creative in their pursuit of knowledge.”

Kirschner noted that Schachman instituted a lecture course at UC Berkeley on scientific misconduct that, unlike most required lectures on the subject, was a carefully constructed social history of misconduct and fraud through the ages up to the most recent cases. He continued to train graduate students in ethics until last year, and videos of many of his lectures are online .

“He was ornery and spirited but had his heart in the right place, and never compromised his integrity,” said Michael Botchan, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who took Schachman’s course on the biophysical principles of macromolecules as a graduate student.

Schachman came to UC Berkeley from Princeton University in 1948 as a biochemistry instructor, following Nobel laureate Wendell Stanley, who had been named director of the newly formed Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory. He established a worldwide reputation in the field of protein structure, developing new techniques — most notably ultracentrifugation — to study proteins ranging from those in the tobacco mosaic virus, at the time a major focus of research, to microbial ribosomes, hemoglobin, immunoglobulins and regulatory enzymes.

His most important contributions were in understanding how enzymes rearrange their structure when they bind to other molecules, often setting off a cascade of other enzymatic reactions in the process. This concept, called allostery, is at the heart of today’s understanding of gene regulation and cell signaling, Botchan said. From the 1970s until a few years ago, he sought to understand how a single enzyme can sense the needs of the cell and regulate its own activity.

Saying ‘No’ to mandatory retirement

After the University of California regents passed in 1949 a requirement that all faculty and staff take loyalty oaths attesting to the fact that they were not members of any Communist organizations, Schachman was among about 200 faculty members who signed a letter of protest. Once it was clear that the regents were serious — 31 faculty members were dismissed for not signing, while others left in protest — Schachman reluctantly signed, as he had two young children to support.

He became increasingly active during the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, and was a major faculty supporter of students protesting university policies that limited political activism on campus.

In the 1980s, Kirschner said, he became concerned about the loose way the government was beginning to handle scientific misconduct, and advocated forcefully for stricter accountability for those receiving federal grants.

When Schachman turned 70, he was asked to retire because of mandatory retirement rules common at many universities, which had obtained a special exemption from federal laws against mandatory retirement passed in 1986. He filed an age-discrimination complaint with the state of California, which he eventually won, and was able to stave off retirement until he decided to retire on his own, in 1991. After a national study, the National Research Council recommended that universities drop such rules, allowing productive researchers and teachers to continue their work indefinitely.

After retirement, he continued to conduct research, teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students. Some 50 students obtained Ph.D.s under his tutelage.

“He will be fondly remembered for his sardonic wit, which was famous worldwide,” Kirschner said. “He poked fun at pompous scientists, charlatans, university administrators, insincere congressmen and totalitarian leaders. I know that he received many invitations to lecture just so students and faculty could hear the elaborately illustrated jokes and the spontaneous one-line zingers.”

Schachman was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 5, 1918, and in high school developed an interest in political and social issues, influenced by his mother, who was active nationally in Jewish affairs. After a year at the University of Pennsylvania, he transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated in 1939 with a degree in chemical engineering. He moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to work in the labs of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and eventually entered graduate school part-time at Princeton University while working part-time with Stanley to determine the structure of the proteins that make up the tobacco mosaic virus, work that won Stanley the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

While at Princeton, he married his wife, Ethel Lazarus, who as a secretary for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, worked closely with Albert Einstein.

Following a stint in the Navy conducting research at the National Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, he completed his physical chemistry Ph.D. in 1948 at Princeton and moved to UC Berkeley with Stanley. He served as director of the Virus Laboratory and as chair of the Department of Molecular Biology from 1969 to 1976, and was president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1987-88 and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, or FASEB, in 1988-89.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was a recipient of the Public Service Award of the FASEB and the Merck Award of the American Society of Biological Chemists and the Alexander von Humboldt Award.

Schachman, who was a resident of El Cerrito, is survived by his sons Marc, an oboist who lives in El Cerrito, and David, a lawyer and photographer who lives in Chicago, as well as four grandchildren and four great grandchildren. His wife, Ethel, died in 2013.