The lab that James Watson led for decades has stripped the Nobel laureate of his last remaining honorary positions, it announced on Friday, in reaction to Watson’s refusal (in a recent documentary) to take back statements widely regarded as racist.
In a statement, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s CEO Bruce Stillman and the chair of its board of trustees Marilyn Simons said the lab “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed on the subject of ethnicity and genetics” in the PBS documentary. The statements “are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students. The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
It added that the statements “are completely and utterly incompatible with our mission, values, and policies, and require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement” in the lab.
The director of the documentary, which aired last week as part of the PBS “American Masters” series, asked Watson if he had changed his mind about his previous statements and writings on race and intelligence, which boil down to the claim that Africans and people of African descent have lower intelligence than other groups because of genetics. Watson declined that lifeline.
When Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of DNA’s double helix structure, first made the offensive (and scientifically baseless) statements in 2007, CSHL, which Watson had saved from ruin and built into a leader in biological research, took away his administrative duties and rescinded his status as chancellor. In its latest step, it revoked his honorary titles of chancellor emeritus, Oliver R. Grace Professor Emeritus, and honorary trustee. It did so, the statement said, because Watson’s remarks in the documentary, which was filmed from 2016 to 2018, “effectively reverse the written apology and retraction Dr. Watson made in 2007,” when he expressed remorse for his racist assertions.
“I believe there is very broad support among the faculty for the multiple steps that CSHL is taking in response to Watson’s horrific comments,” CSHL biologist Justin Kinney, who has been a vocal critic of those comments, told STAT. “The CSHL administration has been very proactive on this matter, seeking input from all of us as well as from many members of the broader scientific community.”
Stillman’s and Simons’ statement added that the lab “acknowledges and appreciates Dr. Watson’s substantial scientific legacy, including his role as founding director of the Human Genome Project.”
Watson, 90, was seriously injured in a car accident last year, and since then had been hospitalized for several weeks and then admitted to a skilled nursing facility. Asked whether Watson or his family had been informed of the actions ahead of time, lab spokeswoman Dagnia Zeidlickis did not reply directly, but said there were “no surprises for anyone.”