Dr. George Q. Daley, a prominent stem cell researcher and crimson-dyed Harvard man, will be the new dean of Harvard Medical School, the university announced Tuesday.
Daley, who led dozens of international colleagues to unite around ethical guidelines for stem cell research, is taking on a new challenge: unifying the powerful hospitals that train Harvard’s medical students.
The 55-year-old will take on the job effective Jan. 1. He will succeed Dr. Jeffrey Flier, who stepped down on July 31. Dr. Barbara McNeil has been filling in in the interim.
After arriving on Harvard’s campus as an undergraduate, Daley spent his whole career in Cambridge and Boston, earning a medical degree from Harvard and a PhD in biology from MIT. He now runs a lab at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital.
While dean of Harvard Med may be one of the most prominent roles in medicine, the job isn’t as powerful as one might think: Harvard Med doesn’t directly oversee any hospitals; it relies on 15 affiliated hospitals and clinical sites — which have historically operated as separate, competitive fiefdoms — to train its students and postdoctoral fellows and support its researchers. Of the nearly 12,000 people who call themselves Harvard Med faculty, only 151 actually work directly for Harvard in its 10 basic science departments.
“One doesn’t need power. One needs persuasiveness,” Daley told STAT Tuesday morning in an interview in his elegant Greek revival home in Cambridge, where he lives with his wife and two teenaged sons.
He said he sees the dean’s job as a “convener” who “builds bridges among the institutions” — big-name research institutions such as Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, and Boston Children’s hospitals.
In a statement, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust called Daley an “adept bridge-builder, a compelling advocate for scientific discovery, and a person of remarkable leadership qualities and thoughtful judgment.”
Flier, Daley’s predecessor, told STAT he spent a full 30 percent to 40 percent of his time as dean trying to build relationships with and coordinate Harvard’s affiliated hospitals and clinics. Daley said he’s up to that task: “My vision is one of increasing connectivity across the community.”
Daley has a head start in building those relationships through many positions he has held around Boston’s biomedical community, including chief resident at Mass. General. He’s now a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Med and director of the stem cell transplantation program at Boston Children’s and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
He said he sees areas of common interest — such as immuno-oncology, which harnesses the body’s own immune system against cancer cells — where the hospitals could work together more closely.
While Daley has not held major administrative positions, his colleagues described him as a natural leader.
He was the driving force behind creating international guidelines around first, human embryonic stem cell research, and then the clinical application of stem cells, said Nancy Witty, CEO of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
Daley, who cofounded the organization, guided two dozen scientists through tricky ethical discussions, with input from 60 groups around the world, to craft the guidelines, she said.
“That’s a very difficult task,” Witty said. “It takes a tremendous amount of diplomacy.”
Jim Collins, an MIT professor who has worked closely with Daley, said Daley recently took the lead coordinating big-name scientists across several institutions on a collaborative grant to compare two types of stem cells. He knows “how to get different groups talking together in a constructive way,” he said.
Daley’s appointment comes at a time when student groups have been calling on Harvard to pick a dean who will make social justice and racial diversity a priority.
As a white man, “I don’t myself represent that diversity,” Daley said. But he said he wants Harvard Med’s faculty, students, and staff to reflect the global community the school aims to serve. Daley said he has tried to promote diversity in hiring for his 30-person lab, though he didn’t have a racial breakdown available.
Daley added that he has a strong interest in sickle-cell anemia — which affects ethnic minorities — and believes the federal government should invest in a “moonshot” effort to cure the disease.
Harvard Med has never had a female dean, except on a short, interim basis. Some had called on the university to pick a woman. Dr. Laurie Glimcher, dean of Cornell’s medical school, said she turned down an invitation to apply for the Harvard dean’s job because she felt she would have more autonomy running Dana-Farber, a job she will start this fall.
In an email Tuesday, Glimcher called Daley an “immensely talented” person and a great leader for Harvard Med.
Colleagues described Daley as an energetic educator and devoted mentor to students and junior scientists. Daley said he plans to keep teaching molecular medicine at Harvard Med.
High on Daley’s agenda as dean are crafting the final two years of Harvard Med’s new curriculum and raising money. Despite its worldwide reputation, and its relative dominance in landing federal grants, Harvard Med has seen annual deficits of between $31 million and $45 million for three years in a row. Some have suggested Harvard offer to rename its medical school in return for a billion-dollar donation. Daley didn’t take a stance on whether Harvard should do that; he said only that the idea would be worth considering in the future.
With federal grants drying up, Daley said, he sees an opportunity to bring in money from corporate partnerships.
“Harvard Medical School has to be partnering with our brethren in pharma,” he said.
Meanwhile, Daley said everyone has been asking him this question: Will he give up his successful lab to take on the new administrative role?
Daley said no. He plans to spend one day per week in the lab, focusing on research on blood stem cells. He said he plans to scale down the 30-person operation and rely on a close collaborator, Dr. Leonard Zon, to help supervise his lab workers.
It’s important for a dean to remain relevant by continuing to publish papers, he said.
Plus, he said, “I just love science.”