Why Eric Lander morphed from science god to punching bag

Genome-sequencing pioneer Eric Lander, one of the most powerful men in American science, did not embezzle funds from the institute he leads, sexually harass anyone, plagiarize, or fabricate data. But he became the target of venomous online attacks last week because of an essay he wrote on the history of CRISPR, the revolutionary genome-editing technology pioneered partly by his colleagues at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

To be sure, Lander gave his foes some openings. He and the journal Cell, which published his essay last week, failed to disclose Lander’s potential conflict of interest when it comes to CRISPR. The essay, other scientists said, got several key facts wrong, and Lander later added what he called clarifications. Stirring the greatest anger, critics charged that rather than writing an objective history he downplayed the role of two key CRISPR scientists who happen to be women.

Those missteps triggered a bitter online war, including the Twitter hashtag #landergate. Biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, deemed his essay “science propaganda at its most repellent” and called for its retraction, while anonymous scientists on the post-publication review site PubPeer ripped into Lander’s motives and character. The attacks spread well beyond science, with the feminist website Jezebel.com charging that “one man tried to write women out of CRISPR.”

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The episode created cracks in a dam that had long held back public criticism of Lander.

The outpouring of rage directed at him arises from what one veteran biomedical researcher calls “pent-up animosity” toward Lander and the Broad Institute, where he serves as director, that has built up over years.

“Science can be a blood sport,” said science historian and policy expert Robert Cook-Deegan of Duke University. “This seems to be one of those times.”

Some of the brickbats hurled at Lander reflect professional jealousy, especially since he took an unconventional path into the top echelons of molecular biology. Some seem to be payback for the egos Lander bruised over the years, dating to his role in the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s. Some of the anger seems to stem from still-simmering animosity over what Lander and his institute represent to many: the triumph of Big Science in biology.

Lander, 58, told STAT that, while he does not peruse social media, the criticism that he’s aware of “does not feel personal in any way. I appreciate that there are a lot of diverse perspectives, and science needs those.”

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.

“Anything I want to say, he’s ahead of me,” said one scientist who has worked closely with Lander on issues of science policy. “With normal mortals you can see wheels grinding in their head, but with Eric you can’t.”

The Broad rose from nonexistence in 2003 to the pinnacle of molecular biology. By 2008 three Broad scientists, including Lander, ranked in the top 10 most-cited authors of recent papers in molecular biology and genetics. In 2011, Lander had more “hot papers” (meaning those cited most by other scientists) in any field, not just biology, than anyone else over the previous two years, according to ThomsonReuters’ ScienceWatch. By 2014, 8 out of what ScienceWatch called “the 17 hottest-of-the-hot researchers” in genomics were at the Broad.

Wiqan Ang/The Boston Globe

Edythe Broad and Eli Broad mingle with the crowd as Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, and Aviv Regev, chat with them, right to left, after a 2005 press conference at the Cambridge genomics research center.

The institute was punching well above its weight. It attracted eye-popping donations, including $650 million for psychiatric research from the foundation of philanthropist Ted Stanley in 2014 and, since its 2003 founding, $800 million from Los Angeles developer Eli Broad and his wife Edythe. It won $176.5 million in research grants from the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2015, ranking it 34th. Larger institutions got more — $604 million for Johns Hopkins, $563 million for the University of California, San Francisco — but the Broad’s smaller number of core researchers were leaving rivals in the dust in terms of their contributions to and influence in science.

To many biomedical researchers at other institutions, said Cook-Deegan, “it feels that these guys from Boston, with more money than God, are trying to muscle in.  . . . People [at the Broad] think they work at the best biomedical research institution in the world, and at meetings they let everyone know that.”

Cook-Deegan admires Lander: he nominated him for the prestigious Abelson Award for public service to science, which will be given to Lander next month by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Apart from the resentment Lander inspires because of the Broad’s success, there is lingering animus over what Lander represents: Big Science.

Alex Hogan/STAT

VIDEO: Eric Lander explains CRISPR

Physics became Big Science — dominated by huge collaborations rather than lone investigators — decades ago with the advent of atomic accelerators. A key 2015 paper on the Higgs boson (“the God particle”) had 5,154 authors. Biology went that route with the launch of the Human Genome Project, the international effort to determine the sequence of 6 billion molecular “letters” that make up human DNA.

Lander was not present at the creation of the $3 billion project in 1990, 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.

Read more: Geneticist Craig Venter helped sequence the human genome. Now he wants yours

“Eric appeared to be an upstart to some people in the science establishment, a mathematician interloper in the tight club of molecular biology,” said Fintan Steele, former director of communications and scientific education at the Broad.

By the late 1990s, confidential National Institutes of Health documents estimated that the genome project was on track to be no more than two-thirds finished by 2005, when it was supposed to be completed, according to histories of the effort. That would have been a disaster: geneticist Craig Venter and his company, Celera, had launched a competing genome-sequencing project and boasted that they would beat the public project to the finish line. Worse, Venter intended to patent DNA sequences, meaning whatever Celera sequenced first would be owned by a for-profit company.

Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe

Eric Lander, left, then at the Whitehead Institute, and Johanna Hastbacka, a postdoctoral fellow, view a DNA sequencing gel showing the gene for dwarfism in 1994. The gene was discovered at the Whitehead.

In early 1998, James Watson, codiscoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure and former head of the genome project, asked Lander to persuade NIH to spend more money, faster. Lander thought the problem went beyond funding. The sequencing project was “too bloody complicated, with too many groups,” he told the New Yorker in 2000.  Tapping his business acumen, Lander decided the project needed to become more focused, with fewer groups. He also thought that allowing two dozen sequencing labs to each claim part of the genome for their own was “madness,” he told author Victor McElheny for a 2010 book on the genome project. If any lab was slow, the whole project would be late.

Lander, therefore, pushed to reorganize the genome project. Scientists who disagreed with his strategy “bellowed in protest,” according to James Shreeve’s 2004 book “The Genome War,” and Lander’s “constant demands” for his lab to sequence more and more “led to a crescendo of heated conversations.” But Lander’s strong-arming worked: the public effort battled Venter to a tie, with both releasing “drafts” of the human genome in 2001. Lander was first among equals, the lead author of the Nature paper unveiling the “book of life.”

His success left some veteran geneticists bitter at the upstart who helped rescue the highest-profile scientific endeavor of the 1990s. But “competing with Venter excused a lot of behavior,” said New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan, a member of the Celera advisory board at the time.

Lander attributes the genome project’s “huge success” to, among other things, the fact that “it had the flexibility to bring in people with different perspectives and skills.” On weekly phone calls for five years, he said, “we debated and argued about everything imaginable.”

In 2003 Lander was instrumental in moving the genome center from the Whitehead to the just-created Broad. “It wasn’t just the genome center that he took,” said Steele, the former Broad staffer. “It was also the substantial funding that supported the center.”

That move was spurred in part by the fact that the genome center had outgrown the Whitehead; it constituted three-quarters of the Whitehead’s budget.

The departure of Lander and his genome center to the Broad generated hard feelings at the Whitehead. One veteran of that battle recalls it as “very bloody,” especially because the Whitehead wasn’t raising much money and feared that Lander would vacuum up potential donors. For several years after, Whitehead annual reports showed a picture of its facility in Cambridge’s Kendall Square with the next-door Broad conspicuously missing.

In the biotech hotbed that surrounds the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it seems every biology PhD has founded a company. Lander is a cofounder of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Verastem, and the cancer vaccine startup Neon Therapeutics. He is a founding advisor to cancer genomics company Foundation Medicine and has close ties to venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, a major investor in the CRISPR company Editas.

Although his involvement in the for-profit world hardly makes him unusual — MIT, like many universities, encourages scientists to translate their research into drugs and other products — it has, nonetheless, added to the resentment. With Foundation, said a former Broad scientist, “there was a belief that the Broad researchers had done all this work on cancer genomics, and Foundation is built on that. People were asking, ‘Are these guys going to get rich on our work?'”

The most serious misstep in Lander’s Cell essay was arguably a failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest: the Broad is engaged in a bitter fight with the University of California system over CRISPR patents. Lander reported this to Cell, but the journal’s policy is not to note such “institutional” conflicts. A review of CRISPR coauthored by Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna in the same issue has no disclosure either, even though she cofounded the CRISPR company Caribou Biosciences, and the Twitterverse has not attacked her.

Critics say Lander downplayed seminal CRISPR research by Doudna and her key collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and overstated the contributions of Broad biologist Feng Zhang. That has been portrayed as sexist, an impression supported by the title of the essay: Heroes of CRISPR. With too-frequent cases of sexism and outright sexual harassment by leading scientists, sensitivities on this are high, but his defenders say Lander has long been a strong supporter of women in science.

“He has always been one of my greatest advocates,” said Harvard and Broad biologist Pardis Sabeti, who did key genetics work on the recent Ebola outbreak. “He has hired strong, tough, brilliant women scientists for the Broad, and has made it one of the best places for women scientists to work.”

Lander said that he wanted his Cell essay simply “to turn the spotlight on 20 years of the backstory of CRISPR,” showing that science is an “ensemble” enterprise in which even key discoveries struggle to be recognized — journals rejected early CRISPR papers. “But I guess it’s only natural that some people will want to focus on current conflicts,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to attribute to other scientists the claims of errors in Eric Lander’s essay. It also called his response to those claims corrections when he described them as clarifications. 

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