We got some wonderful news from Joe Biden last week.
President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday that he has chosen a pioneer in mapping the human genome — the so-called “book of life” — to be his chief science adviser and is elevating the top science job to a Cabinet position.
It’s about time! It’s astonishing that we’ve gotten by without a science advisor to the president or congress, or when we do have one, they’re ignored, but that’s Republicans for you.
Then, this being Joe Biden, he just has to screw it up. He has nominated Eric Lander for the position. If I had to name anyone who is the personification of Big Science, of Corporate Science, of $cience, I’d immediately say Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute in Boston. I can see why he was chosen: he’s a successful player, a brilliant man, a knowledgeable molecular biologist, a fantastic organizer — he knows how to run a big lab and a big institute, and is going to fit comfortably into an even bigger position. The man is a machine, and is good at running other machines. One thing Lander has in buckets is ambition.
(You knew that was coming, right?)
First, let’s get a minor issue out of the way. Lander had a brief, tangential association with Jeffrey Epstein. He was photographed attending a meeting at Martin Nowak’s office (Nowak was a significant recipient of Epstein’s largesse and should be looked at more critically), but I’m saying, “So what?” I’m sure Lander gets dragged into all kinds of meetings he’d rather not participate in, as the head of the Broad Institute. There’s no evidence of any other association with Epstein other than that a well-known Harvard professor invited him to meet, and Lander seems to have been uninterested in Epstein.
“Martin invited me to an informal sandwich lunch at his institute to talk science with various people,” Lander told BuzzFeed News by email. “I was glad to do it. Martin didn’t mention who’d be attending. I had not met Epstein before, didn’t know much about him, and learned that he was a major donor to Martin’s institute.
“I later learned about his more sordid history,” Lander added. “I’ve had no relationship with Epstein.”
I think it’s fair to say that Epstein went out of his way to brush shoulders with every big name scientist he could find, Lander is one of the biggest, so he tainted him along with a lot of others.
Far more concerning to me is his attitude towards other scientists who were not under his thumb. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2020 for their work on CRISPR/Cas gene editing, and only Doudna and Charpentier. Eric Lander was behind a massive campaign, using all his clout with science publishers and corporations, to promote Feng Zhang, who had also done work on CRISPR, but most importantly, was an employee of the Broad Institute. Lander really wanted the Broad to get the credit for such an important discovery.
So Lander wrote a paper titled “The Heroes of CRISPR” (I was already cringing at just the title) which downplayed the role of Doudna and Charpentier — barely mentioned them at all — and played up the role of others. Like Zhang. Like the Broad Institute. It was bad science and bad history, but it would have been great propaganda if it wasn’t so blatant that everyone caught on to what he was doing.
This controversy does not mean that the work on CRISPR-Cas9 was not initially motivated by a desire to advance scientific knowledge, as Lander asserts in his review. Prizes and patents pollute the story and increase what is at stake, but do not, it is to be hoped, prevent curiosity from being one of the wellsprings of scientific discovery and innovation.
What is new and remarkable is the form that Eric Lander gave to his participation in the debate: the writing of a comprehensive history. Many readers have already pinpointed some problems with this historical record, in particular factual errors. The emphasis Lander places on those involved varies: Zhang’s work from his institute receives a full-page description, whereas the contributions of Doudna and Charpentier are much more briefly described. Rhetorical strategies, such as positioning in paragraphs, were also used to emphasize the value of some contributions over others. For example, Doudna is first mentioned in the middle of a paragraph, as the direct object rather than the subject of the sentence. Charpentier’s name appears at the bottom of a paragraph.
Oh, and he was neck-deep in a patent dispute over CRISPR, a significant fact that he did not mention.
What that all means is that Lander’s reputation among scientists isn’t exactly glowing.
Current and former colleagues contacted by STAT described Lander as brilliant, prickly, and brash, as having “an ego without end,” as “a visionary” who “doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” and as “an authentic genius” who “sees things the rest of us don’t.” Lander won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1987 at age 30. Since 2009, he has co-chaired President Obama’s scientific advisory council.
In case you’re wondering why Biden picked him, there’s a hint in the above sentence.
Lander was not present at the creation of the $3 billion project in 1990 [the human genome project], but the sequencing center he oversaw at the Whitehead Institute became a powerhouse in the race to complete it. Much of that work was done by robots and involved little creativity (once scientists figured out how to do the sequencing). Some individual investigators felt they couldn’t compete against peers at the sequencing centers in the race for grants.
“He became a symbol of plowing lots of resources into industrialized, mindless science that could be run by machines and technicians and so wasn’t real biology,” said one scholar of that period. “Eric came to embody Big Science in that way.”
More than that, Lander played an outsized role in the project relative to his background and experience. A mathematician by training, after he graduated from Princeton in 1978 and earned a PhD in math in 1981 at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, he taught managerial economics at Harvard Business School from 1981 to 1990. He slowly became bored by the MBA world and enchanted with biology, however, and in 1990 founded the genome center at the Whitehead. It was hardly the pay-your-dues, do your molecular biology PhD and postdoctoral fellowship route to a leading position in the white-hot field of genomics.
Maybe Lander is the future of Big Science, where the Little Scientists get replaced by armies of technicians marching through protocols with the goal of getting a patent and corporate sponsorship, but I don’t have to like it.