$cience gets a seat at the table


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.

But…

(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.

Comments

  1. says

    who “doesn’t suffer fools gladly,”

    That phrase is a solid indicator I would dislike both the person about whom it’s said and the person saying it. It really just means you’re a jerk.

  2. Paul K says

    Man, this just sucks! Why does great news so often have to get kicked in the teeth? I was so excited to hear about the elevation of science to cabinet-level importance. But even I — just a well-informed non-scientist — had heard of this guy and the controversy around him. How must scientists feel? Surely there are oodles of better choices who could get the job done without the baggage this guy brings.

  3. says

    This is what happens when the people making the decisions not only “aren’t scientists,” but have at best a forty-year-old rocks-for-jocks{1} background in science themselves. People who’ve never spent time in a sophomore-level lab just… don’t… get it, even when PhDs break it down for them. And there are very, very few MBAs and lawyers and “successful entrepreneurs” who have taken organic chemistry, or quantum physics, or discrete circuit design, or anything else above the 100 level. So, instead, they’re overly impressed by those whose primary skill is communicating something sounding scientific as a policy basis.{2}

    When “Dr” Paul is the ne plus ultra of scientific education among the decisionmakers, just having the occasional better-qualified advisor is nowhere near enough. And that, of course, assumes that Dr Lander is an across-the-board better-qualified advisor (and/or has the humility to bring deputies from other fields to meetings and actually give them the floor). I seriously doubt that his background at the Broad Institute will give him very much insight into, say, groundwater contamination downstream of “clean coal” mining operations… or, more to the point, how to educate the next generation of scientists, given the Broad Institute’s dubious reputation there.

    {1} This is not a slam at geology. It is a slam at “general education” courses that are so watered down that even those who don’t have to get “scientific method” can pass them and claim that they’ve fulfilled their entire science “general education” requirement.

    {2} This is not a slam at effective communication skills, either. It’s a slam at substituting persuasion for exposition… especially when the “correct” result is “needs more study” rather than a six-point economically efficient plan with excellent public-relations hooks built in (and, by the way, a great opportunity for someone to build empires and/or stock portfolios).

  4. stroppy says

    Hmm, report executive summaries do have a reputation for being the for dummies version.

    I agree that more math and science (maybe especially statistics and probability) should be required, but I doubt that plugging and chugging your way though some courses would be sufficient. The missing link, IMO, is scientific metaliteracy, how science works and why.

  5. mnb0 says

    So perhaps getting by without a science advisor for four years didn´t make any difference.
    Well, that was another reason why voting for JoeB didn´t make sense. JoeB being JoeB expect many, many examples to follow and very, very few – if any – of the opposite.

  6. Paul K says

    There have already been some of the opposite, and promises of more starting on day one. I am skeptical of Biden, but the cynicism and defeatism of some folks really is starting to bug me. He hasn’t even started yet, and he’s failed, according to those who would like someone better. I’d like someone better, too, but he’s what we have, and I keep hoping for good to come of it. He is worlds away better than who he’s replacing. So, yes, I expect him to do what is right and decent, and I will be disappointed and pissed when he doesn’t.

  7. says

    @#6, Susan Montgomery:

    Well, all the people who were telling me I was nuts for hating Biden apparently were expecting that — despite his entire f*cking career to the contrary — he would be basically competent and a force for decency and truth, rather than just a more genial flavor of Trump.

    Of course, those people — including the ones on this board — are imbeciles who deserve every last betrayal Biden is going to pull, but it’s a shame they helped him get into a position where he could screw the rest of us over.

  8. stroppy says

    @9

    “…but it’s a shame they helped him get into a position where he could screw the rest of us over…”

    Since you’re an accelerationist who apparently wanted Trump to win and wreak havoc, this should make you happy, or are you just habitually bitter and having a good whine.

    @7
    see above

    @ 6
    I expect PZ to report the facts, which he did.

  9. JustaTech says

    So, I get what is wrong with this guy, but I don’t understand (and please do explain to me) what’s wrong with using a robot to do mindless repetitive sequencing work?
    Would it have been better if it had been done by an army of technicians?
    The Human Genome Project was huge, so there was always going to be a ton of boring, repetitive scut work. No one with a PhD would waste their time on that. Heck, you probably couldn’t even get grad students to do something so dull. That’s what technicians are for, to do the simple, boring science so all the PhDs can do the fun stuff. That’s how science, especially science in industry, works. Why is this bad? Why is it wrong for people who enjoy science but lack the inclination or resources to get a PhD, to still have a job in science? I feel like I am missing something.

  10. says

    @The Vicar 9
    The shaming of problems with Ds and on the political left generally does not stop for all of us. I understand and agree with reminding people of the issues they enable (in the abstract, lots of things I don’t know enough about. That’s good for poking at people. I tend to focus on the poking at part too because it is possible to point at a problem without having a solution as an outsider. Often I’m not the one who should be proposing solutions like when I poke at a problem related to racism.

    I’m not suggesting anything I do will help, or that Ds and other assorted in-group members will like it, or that anyone should like what you are saying or not, but as an example I have Biden’s Serial Sexual Harassment and other personal space issues. I’m still thinking about how to poke with it beyond very technical and feared words (all caps was tempting).

    I connect the leader to the simple scary words and try to minimize the general disparagement of character, that has only been useful for the Biden/Trump comparison for me.

  11. says

    @10 yes he did. The revival of American liberalism has to begin at the bottom, not the top. Biden’s gonna Biden and i don’t see why that should be met with anything but dull surprise.

  12. Tethys says

    I too am dismayed by all the prejudice against Biden. He wasn’t my preferred choice, but he is FAR better than the alternative.

    As we are currently have people dying by the thousands on a daily basis, perhaps having a cabinet person who can scale up science endeavors to industrial size processes is a wise choice?

    Biden is best at building working relationships, and has already shown his willingness to listen and respond to the dem factions who are done with blue dog dem BS.

    We flipped the senate. We flipped Georgia. We have a female VP who is also a poc, and many more in cabinet and administrative positions.

    Biden has already done all that, and he hasn’t even been officially sworn in.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    I see the sad little parrots (The Vicar, mnb0 and Susan Montgomery) are still squawking their limited repertoire at the slightest provocation. Some things never change.

  14. chris61 says

    So Biden has put together a relatively diverse science advisory team at the beginning of his term (rather than over a year in as his predecessor did) so yeah, I’m moderately optimistic.

  15. DanDare says

    Left/right seems only metaphorical to me with respect to some issues.<<
    I’m often railing against the use of those to terms. They pointlessly conflat vast swags of behaviour into good guy / bad guy collections instead of dealing with the multipolar situations.
    Consider how you think each of these applied to left or right.
    Authoritarian and Liberal.
    Conservative and Progressive.
    Corporate, Union, Individual and Community.
    Science, Religion, Mysticism, Superstition and Wonder.
    Right vs left trigger particular settings in those discussions but somewhat different settings in each brain.

  16. KG says

    May I ask how you’d sum up my repertoire? – Susan Montgomery@23

    “Hippies and lefties bad.”

  17. says

    @24 And I’ve yet to have it explained to me why that’s not true. Oh, there’s a lot of name-calling and “NUH-UHHs!” to be sure, but that’s about it.

    Maybe you’d also like to tell me why, if the New Left and Counterculture were such paragons of virtue and so wildly successful, we’re in the state we’re in today? I keep asking this and keep getting the pat “all-powerful Russians and Corporations” which proves nothing. Unless you can clearly demonstrate that Russian Spy wamma-jamma can some how make the UK, for example, go from %100 love for the EU to making leaving a winning issue for the political establishment. I mean, there’s no doubt that they were pushing people’s buttons but we don’t seem to want to admit that those buttons were there to be pushed already.

    In short, there’s a lack of introspection as to why we almost never succeed and always sabotage ourselves when we do. And I suspect that’s to do with the lingering taint of the great wrong turn 50 years ago and the continuing nostalgia for it.

  18. stroppy says

    CM: May I ask how you’d sum up my repertoire?
    KG: “Hippies and lefties bad.”
    CM: And I’ve yet to have it explained to me why that’s not true.

    Glad to see confirmation of what rocks the myopic hobby horse and why, to wit: It’s the fault of the commentariat for not dislodging CM’s gross, and apparently entrenched, ideological caricature of how history works and of the opinions that have actually been expressed here.

    I think we know where that goes. (back and forth, back and forth… ∞ )

  19. says

    @27 Is that a misspelling or are you subtly hinting that I’m Russian?

    I’ll leave you to your delusions of perfection if you so wish. That’s why things go round and round – rather than at least consider the possibility that we’ve made some horrible mistakes you simply revert to the schoolchild who refuses to admit that he’s been tagged.

  20. stroppy says

    @28
    If you’re referring to “commentariat” no it’s not a reference to you in any way. It’s a waggish term that’s been around for decades referring to a group of commentators– like you know, people who show up in comment threads. Look it up.

    “delusions of perfection”
    What delusions of perfection? I accept that life is complex, nuanced, and ambiguous, unlike the view that “Hippies and lefties bad.” Check yourself out.

    “Consider the possibility that we’ve made some horrible mistakes”
    That’s absolutely the kind of ridiculous mischaracterization I was talking about. You just pulled that condescending nonsense out of your ass. I’m well aware of all kinds of horrible mistakes. Don’t assume.

    “you simply revert to the schoolchild who refuses to admit that he’s been tagged”
    Pffft. If you’re trying to insult me, do better–hopefully with less projecting.

  21. says

    No, I’m referring to you calling me “CM”. “Cy3aH” would be “Susan” in Cyrillic.

    If all you can come up with is “I know you are, but what am I?”, then we are indeed done talking and I’ll not raise the issue again.

  22. Tethys says

    As an observation, knowing how to write your name in Cyrillic does not offer convincing proof that one is not a Russian troll.

  23. stroppy says

    I should have said SM, my mistake. I don’t know from Russian, but good to know that you do.

    Your assertions @ 28 are straw men based on nothing. And if all you do otherwise is project, what is else is there really to say about it? You apparently aren’t interested in a substantive exchange to begin with.

    I believe that I have commented on other threads specifically about this broad brush, ahistorical hippie stuff, while noting how problematic the 60s 70s were, and gotten no response from you (although you did absurdly intimate at one point that my posting of a Country Joe video was somehow “nihilistic.”) So I’m perfectly happy to let the matter rest.

  24. says

    I am a citizen of the world, Mr Stroppy. I became hugely interested in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in the 00’s and picked up a bit of interest in Russian music and language along the way.

    Are you sure that was me? I happen to think Fixing To Die Rag is actually pretty good. Direct, unambiguous and with a still-tasteful dash of dark humor. I don’t treat the Peace symbol like a vampire treats a crucifix, I just think that more good than bad came out of that era.

    But, with the limitations of time and my limited skills as a writer, I think it’s best just to drop the matter.

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