The resignation of Eric Lander as President Biden’s lead scientific adviser is not just a blow to one president’s plans for advancing research, but a signpost on the death march of a certain way of doing science. It’s not quite “big science,” which isn’t going anywhere. Call it “big ego.”
In science, “big ego” isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. But in recent decades it grew with the emergence of researchers who could both handle the kind of gloves-off debate that can mark academic discourse and marshal vast resources to make certain types of scientific discoveries, like mapping genomes or understanding how molecular changes in a cell lead to cancer.
Accomplishing those tasks once seemed to require an outsize personality, as well as the ability to translate not only the meaning of science but the excitement of doing it — to laypeople, to donors, to politicians. It was in this world that Lander excelled. For decades, he was not only one of the world’s most cited scientists, but also an administrator who built a research empire.
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