Michael Eisen was about to leave with his daughter for the Taylor Swift concert Saturday when someone flagged the offending news: Eric Lander, one of the most powerful men in American science, had toasted James Watson, a discoverer of DNA’s double helix, who has expressed racist and sexist views.
Eisen took to Twitter quickly and vociferously, declaring that Lander, the president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was “a deceitful megalomaniac who is destroying science” and who had offered “glowing support of misogynistic, anti-Semitic racists.”
He was only getting warmed up. Over the next 24 hours, Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, unleashed dozens of tweets that grew only more unsparing to both Watson and Lander.
As the scientific community rose up in fury against Lander for his admiring remarks to Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, no scientist was as unrelenting as Eisen. His tweets stirred up the science community, even as Lander apologized on Monday, saying he himself had been the subject of Watson’s anti-Semitism.
For many scientists, Lander’s response settled the issue. But Eisen, a years-long critic of Lander, said the event underscored how the scientific establishment needed to do some deeper soul searching over how the celebration of Watson for his 90th birthday happened in the first place.
“I hope we can all pause and think deeply about which scientists we choose to honor & why,” Eisen wrote on Twitter, while crediting Lander for apologizing. “How it is that someone everyone knows to be racist, sexist & anti-semitic is still among us, let alone toasted. And how many lives and careers have been & are ruined by our silence.”
Eisen, 51, is anything but silent. Throughout his career — which has included a slapdash U.S. Senate campaign, blog posts, and nearly 39,000 tweets — he has lobbed grenades at the peer-review and scientific journal system, the relentless pursuit of patents by academic institutions (including Berkeley), and leaders of top-flight scientific institutions, including Lander and Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
His targets are the people and power structures that he sees as betraying the field of science itself. Too often, he says, institutions misuse their power for more money, more accolades, and more control over where research is headed, seeking to scoop up patents, awards, and journal citations in some sort of scientific arms race. And because the system has been constructed that way, it is up to a cadre of luminaries to deign which research projects should be pursued or who should receive grants or which papers are worth paying attention to.
I hope we can all pause and think deeply about which scientists we choose to honor & why. How it is that someone everyone knows to be racist, sexist & anti-semitic is still among us, let alone toasted. And how many lives and careers have been & are being ruined by our silence. https://t.co/HOIgxXSoT3
— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) May 14, 2018
No scientist has taken on Lander as aggressively as Eisen, a longtime advocate for open science who views Lander as an embodiment of “Big Science.” He tore into him, for example, over Lander’s history of the genome-editing technology CRISPR, which Eisen lambasted for puffing up the Broad’s contributions while skipping over those of other researchers, including his colleagues at Berkeley. (A Broad spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)
Eisen said that he and Lander have spoken occasionally over the years, and their interactions have been, if not chummy, perfectly professional. And he has credited the Broad as a place with excellent science and for perfecting the art of racking up grants, media attention, and patents that so many other institutions try to replicate. (As he’s tweeted, “You can’t really complain when someone plays a game but they’re just better at it.”)
But if Eisen’s ideas about how science should be conducted are idealistic, his often scathing approach has led plenty of researchers to tell him he should tone it down. He’s called Lander an “evil genius at the height of his craft” and warned that if Collins, generally a well-regarded leader, stayed in charge of the NIH, it “would be a disaster.” (President Trump wound up keeping Collins in his position.)
On Sunday, when Eisen in a tweet connected Lander’s toast of Watson to his purported CRISPR sins, another scientist, Craig Kaplan of Texas A&M University, replied: “Connecting one garbage move to your other Lander feelings doesn’t necessarily seem fair, and it could undermine your authority to condemn Lander’s ill considered gesture.”
“We have too much of a tradition of holding our tongues and not expressing anger in science.”
In a phone interview with STAT Tuesday, Eisen acknowledged that his broadsides could be counterproductive, pushing those who disagree further away from him rather than making them willing to listen.
“I’m not always disciplined in my language,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he wished he was more “prudent.”
“But I’m also aware that people tend to lose their effectiveness when they filter themselves,” he insisted. “That’s not to say everybody should be Howard Stern or something, and I take people’s criticisms to heart. I don’t mean to be ineffective or offensive, but I think it’s important to genuinely express disdain and emotions and frustration and anger at things. That’s an important part of fixing them.”
He said that if people weren’t so worried about being polite — demonstrating hagiographic loyalty to prominent scientists just because they don’t want to ruffle feathers — then maybe so many people wouldn’t have gone along with celebrating Watson this past weekend.
“We have too much of a tradition of holding our tongues and not expressing anger in science,” he said. “This is who I am. I get angry. I’m expressing real emotions.”
Eisen’s younger brother, Jonathan, a UC Davis microbiologist and aggressive Twitter user himself, said Michael’s sometimes impolite methods have their virtues.
“In some cases, the choice of words might not have been perfect or the approach might not have been perfect, but part of the thing that’s interesting and powerful is the indignation,” Jonathan Eisen said. “If you are indignant and are offended by what someone does, if you are polite about that, it doesn’t have the same impact.”
For generations, science has been intertwined with the Eisen family: Both Eisen’s mother and father were scientists, and one of his grandfathers was a physicist.
But his skepticism about scientific institutions is also driven by a searing tragedy.
In 1987, his father, Howard Eisen, who was working as a scientist at the NIH, killed himself while investigating scientific fraud in his laboratory. No allegations were ever made against Howard Eisen, but scientists and his family told the Washington Post at the time that the pressure of the investigation and the fact that a member of his lab might have committed fraud distressed him. “Eisen’s friends and family acknowledge that his personality — he was intensely idealistic and unusually sensitive — made him vulnerable,” the Post reported then.
“I felt, for a long time, that the faceless people on that NIH committee had literally killed my father,” Michael Eisen wrote in a 2013 blog post that also discussed the suicide of Aaron Swartz. But, he added, “you know, it just isn’t true … I will never stop trying to figure out why my father responded to this particular stress in the way he did — and I know I will never actually understand it. But the NIH did not kill him, and the prosecutors did not kill Swartz. They killed themselves.”
Eisen’s father helped instill in him a love of science, but the suicide still shapes the distrust with which Eisen views scientific institutions more than 30 years later, he said. He does not blame the NIH for his father’s suicide, but he said in the interview that “the institutions of science failed him.”
“Honestly, half of the time I don’t really like thinking about it that much,” he added. “But I think it’s true: it made me both wary and aware of the ways that the structures around scientists matter to their lives. Part of the challenge that scientists face is they have too much respect for the institutions, and it made me not respect them. And it made me want to do something to make people’s lives in science better and to focus on the ways we organize ourselves as institutions.”
Eisen, who was a sophomore at Harvard when his father died, said he has thought seriously about whether his online attacks could ever cause any distress among the people he’s criticizing. But he said he tries only to “punch up” to people in authority and that Twitter provided an opportunity to shine a light on the failings of powerful institutions and individuals.
“It is a dangerous tool, and things can get out of control quickly,” he said. “I know I come across as being hot-tempered, but I try to focus my anger on people I’m pretty confident can take it and where there’s a broader point at play.”
Advocating for ‘open science’
In his academic lab at Berkeley, Eisen is at work trying to understand how genes are regulated during development by studying fly embryos. But beyond his research, he has long been an advocate for the “open science” movement that would make papers and data publicly available. In 2001, he co-founded the Public Library of Science, which now publishes a fleet of open access journals, and his lab makes all of its work available online.
“Not only does he talk the talk, but he walks the walk,” said Johns Hopkins’ Carol Greider, who has worked with Eisen on open science campaigns. She said that sometimes researchers feel they have to publish in top journals like Cell, Science, or Nature to be successful, but that Eisen has built a thriving research career while publishing his work openly.
Greider acknowledged that “sometimes Michael speaks very strongly.”
Asked if Eisen ever rubbed people the wrong way, Patrick Brown, another co-founder of PLoS, was even more direct, saying, “Are you kidding me?”
Brown, an emeritus professor at Stanford who oversaw Eisen when he was a postdoctoral research, defended Eisen’s approach. He said that Eisen angered people because he, rightly, tried to shake up the status quo in the conservative field of scientific research. And Greider and Brown both said they didn’t see Eisen’s adamancy or even his audacity as making him ineffective at driving change.
“There are always plenty of people who are willing to occupy the middle ground,” said Brown, who is the CEO of Impossible Foods, which makes a meatless burger. (Eisen is himself a vegan.) “You need people to plant a stake and say, ‘This is the way,’ who are uncompromising, basically.”
Campaigning for political office
Not all of Eisen’s endeavors have been successful. He gained widespread attention in 2017 when he announced his planned run for the U.S. Senate. He presented himself as a scientist willing to get off the sidelines in a real attempt to introduce scientific reasoning into policy making.
The campaign didn’t generate much beyond headlines. Eisen said his hope all along was to get second in the primary so he could advance to the general election against the longtime incumbent, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and draw attention to his issues, even though he never thought he could win. (California has an open primary system, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of political party.)
But when Kevin de León, a well-known state senator, entered the race, it sucked up all the attention and money that might have gone to a non-Feinstein candidate.
Eisen insisted that he wasn’t violating the principles of his nascent campaign when he gave it up.
“I was trying to make a point, but in politics, if no one is listening, you’re not making a point, you’re just wasting time,” he said, noting that he has to teach, run a lab, and raise a family. “Part of being an empiricist is being empirical about politics.”
If anything, Eisen isn’t reckoning with whether he should dial his diatribes down; he seems more perplexed why other tenured researchers aren’t willing to speak their minds. It’s why he feels free to criticize his own institution for pushing its researchers to publish in top-tier journals and seeking patents.
“Academia creates these unique positions — maybe judges are the only other example — where people aren’t going to get fired unless like they actually do something illegal,” he said. “And speaking up for justice is not going to get you fired. It’s like they look at the whole thing as a club and once they’re inside it, they can’t criticize it. It still shocks the s**t out of me.”
(Eisen has set his crosshairs on this publication before as well, tweeting that STAT was a “division” of the Broad’s press office after an article said that patent judges seemed to favor awarding key CRISPR patents to the Broad over UC, which is what ultimately happened.)
Then again, maybe Eisen — who was born in Boston and is a diehard Red Sox fan — is just more boisterous than others. He tweets vehemently about politics, and joked over the weekend while at the Taylor Swift concert in Santa Clara, Calif., that the event was “proof that God hates us and doesn’t want us to procreate.”
Another tweet from last week: “It’s a very good thing I got tenure before twitter.”
it’s a very good thing i got tenure before @twitter
— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) May 9, 2018