Researcher Gives Back His $614,000 Grant, Quits As `Gene Jockey'

WASHINGTON - With all the complaining from scientists these days about the shortage of federal research money, John Fagan stands out as the last of the big spenders.

The 46-year-old University of Washington graduate and molecular biologist is returning nearly $614,000 in grant money to the National Institutes of Health, while withdrawing his previously filed request for an additional $1.25 million.

Fagan is doing so to protest what he sees as rampant and unwise genetic tinkering with plants and animals and the release of these novel organisms into the environment.

"The benefits of genetic engineering have been oversold, and the dangers have been underrepresented," said Fagan, who has received more than $2.5 million in NIH grant money since 1986.

Jerome Green, director of the NIH division of research grants and a 39-year veteran of the institutes, said this may be the first instance of a scientist returning grant money in protest.

But Fagan is not your ordinary scientist. A Cornell University Ph.D. who spent seven years doing research in high-profile laboratories at the National Cancer Institute, he has been a professor of molecular biology at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, since 1976.

The university was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru of transcendental meditation. And although it is accredited to the Ph.D. level by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, its peculiar name and its emphasis on meditation and Indian traditional healing techniques have left scientists wondering what to make of Fagan and his views.

Fagan said the decision to return the money was not the result of some spiritual epiphany (he is a practicing Christian who meditates regularly), but the culmination of an long evolution in his thinking that started in 1968. It was then, as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, that he learned transcendental meditation.

Immediately, he said, his grades improved, and he continued the practice throughout graduate and postgraduate training, which focused on enzymes in the body that neutralize cancer-causing substances. By all accounts he was a model scientist.

After accepting a faculty position at MIU, however, he began to have qualms about the work he and other "gene jockeys" were performing. He fretted about the kinds of changes that might be wrought on humans by scientists' new-found ability to change the genetic blueprint.

Even more worrisome, he said, were the seemingly indiscriminate genetic manipulations being performed on plants and laboratory animals, and the potential for those new genetic combinations to spread to other creatures.

"I'm concerned that we currently don't have enough data to predict the outcomes of these manipulations," he said, comparing scientists to 10-year-olds who think they are ready to drive a car.

NIH won't see a penny of the $613,882 that Fagan is returning, said Anne Thomas, NIH associate director for communications. Because the money was part of last year's budget, it must go back into the U.S. Treasury's general fund.

Fagan has not severed all ties to NIH. He said he would continue to live on about $100,000 remaining in yet another grant to support promising scientists while he pursues other remedies to disease. Information from Reuters is included in this report.