Updated: Feb 25, 2021
President Biden nominated Eric Lander as Presidential Science Adviser, a decision that the scientific community has widely criticized because of Lander’s misogynist conduct. Lander earned the nickname “Eric Slander” for his attacks on rival scientists. If confirmed to a newly-created cabinet position, Lander will head the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lander’s work has been cited more than a million times in scientific literature. Biden called Lander “one of the most brilliant guys I know.”
Lander earned the nickname “Eric Slander” for his attacks on rival scientists.
The public outrage was fueled by Lander’s 2016 essay, “The Heroes of CRISPR,” which was a blatant attempt to rewrite the history of the Broad Institute’s genome-editing technology called CRISPR. In the essay, Lander minimized the contributions of two women scientists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. Ruth Reader described Lander’s ploy as “an egregious example of how the history around science can be shaped by powerful people who have the potential to profit—a structure that often leaves women out of the glory” in an article published in Fast Company. It just so happens that when Lander wrote the article, Doudna and Charpentier were suing the Broad Institute, which Lander founded, for a patent dispute involving CRISPR’s Cas-9, an enzyme that cuts DNA. The lawsuit is ongoing. Writing for the feminist website Jezebel, Joanna Rothkopf criticized Lander: “That Lander would attempt to write the definitive history of the development of a groundbreaking, potentially Nobel Prize-worthy technology, especially while in the midst of a legal battle surrounding exactly that, struck many as a bald-faced attempt at excising, in this case, the contribution of women from the scientific record.”
“The essay was science propaganda at its most repellent;” a “bald-faced attempt at excising the contribution of women from the scientific record.”
UCLA biologist Michael Eisen called Lander’s essay “science propaganda at its most repellent.” The biomedical news website, Stat, claimed: Lander had “morphed from science god to punching bag,” In October, Doudna and Charpentier became the sixth and seventh woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on CRISPR Cas-9.
The maelstrom over Lander’s nomination for Presidential Science Adviser was also fueled by Lander’s 2018 toast on geneticist Jim Watson’s 90th birthday. Watson co-discovered the double helix with Francis Crick, based on the pioneering work of Rosalind Franklin. Lander called Watson “flawed but strident” and praised him for “inspiring all of us to push the frontiers of science to benefit humankind.” In 2007, Watson was forced to resign from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after suggesting to a reporter that Black people are intellectually inferior to white people: “All our social policies are based on the fact that [Africans’] intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says ‘not really’.” Cold Spring condemned Watson’s “unsubstantiated and reckless” remarks as well as his “misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
“I am not a racist in a conventional way. I apologize. The [Sunday Financial Times] journalist somehow wrote that I worried about the people in Africa because of their low IQ – and you’re not supposed to say that.”
In 2000, Watson suggested a biochemical link between sunlight exposure and sexual activity. In support, he cited a University of Arizona study in which white men were injected with melanin to determine if their skin would darken and protect them against skin cancer. The men experienced an unusual side effect: prolonged erections. During a lecture, Watson showed a slide of bikini-clad women and veiled Muslim women to demonstrate that sexual desire might be curbed by limiting sun exposure.
During the same lecture, he illustrated his hypothesis that thin people are sadder and therefore more ambitious than fat people by showing a slide of a model a sad-looking Kate Moss. He told the audience:
“Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”
Watson also claimed that overweight people are more sexual because they have more leptin in their blood. A slide of a Rubens painting accompanied this statement. Biology professor Susan Marqusee was so offended that she walked out of the lecture: “I was kind of in shock. He took a lot of what I consider sexist and racist stereotypes and claimed a biochemical basis without presenting any data.” Watson has also been criticized for minimizing the crystallographic contributions of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of the double helix—a trait that he shares with Lander.
After Eric Lander toasted James Watson, social media exploded with negative comments. Lander apologized, saying he knew of Watson’s views. His apology was much better than Watson’s: “I reject his views as despicable. They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone. In retrospect, I should have followed my first instinct, which was to decline the invitation.”
The Senate must confirm Lander’s appointment, raising the possibility for contentious daytime reality TV in the midst of an impeachment trial. Biologist Michael Eisen says that Lander is politically savvy and knows how to sell his ideas:
“But I do think that it’s important that people who are going to interact with him have some understanding of why he’s not a universally loved figure in science.”