Last month, President Biden tapped Dr. Eric Lander to be his science advisor and lead a new "war on cancer" initiative. Just five days later, he was unceremoniously dumped.
Nominees come and go all the time, of course, yet there was no doubt over Lander's scientific and managerial qualifications. He is a professor of biology at MIT and Harvard University. He was instrumental in steering the Human Genome Project to a point of actual utility, providing detailed genetic maps of heritable diseases, and proceeding from those clues to novel treatments. He is a skilled political operative,...
Last month, President Biden tapped Dr. Eric Lander to be his science advisor and lead a new “war on cancer” initiative. Just five days later, he was unceremoniously dumped.
Nominees come and go all the time, of course, yet there was no doubt over Lander’s scientific and managerial qualifications. He is a professor of biology at MIT and Harvard University. He was instrumental in steering the Human Genome Project to a point of actual utility, providing detailed genetic maps of heritable diseases, and proceeding from those clues to novel treatments. He is a skilled political operative, hobnobbing with the wealthy and powerful on his way to becoming the president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Lander admittedly bruised many feelings along the way, but even among those who felt the stab of his sharp elbows, he’s garnered high praise for his vision and managerial skills. I admit to my personal reservations about him: he is the quintessence of the Big Science cartel, which I have argued elsewhere has been a net drag on the practice and culture of academic science. But the Biden administration is all about Big Science, which should have made Eric Lander a perfect fit. And in fact, Lander had, for some months, been informally filling the role he’d been nominated for.
So what explains Lander’s defenestration?
He was done in by the Mean Girls. The knives had been out for Lander even before his formal nomination. Playing Brutus was the feminist activist group, 500 Women Scientists (500WS). I confess to have never heard of them before, so let’s let them introduce themselves:
[500 Women Scientists arose from] confronting the threads of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-science rhetoric that were [sic.] during the 2016 U.S. election.
Interesting timing. They go on to say:
We continue to confront the shameful history of science being used to harm people – and the participation of the scientific community in this harm.
You get the idea. 500WS arose as part of the many-headed hydra of the anti-Trump resistance following the 2016 election. The motivating theme, to the extent there is one, is that science is dominated by a toxic patriarchy, which must be overthrown. They propose to rescue science, with only the most altruistic motives, of course, by liberating systematically oppressed groups (a granular matrix of women, racial minorities, and heterodox sexual proclivities) from the grip of the white male oppressor.
In short, 500WS is another tedious variation on the Manichean, millenarian, semi-religious hive fervor that is common to the cultural Marxist progressive left. The internal contradictions are amusing to observe. The white women engage in exquisite genuflections of guilt about their whiteness to deflect the righteous anger of their multiply oppressed sorority sisters. Ritual nods of “you go girl!” are scattered throughout like rose petals. Sisterhood über alles! will lead science to the bright utopia once the harmful white patriarchy is deposed. The actual science the sisters of 500WS do is almost an afterthought. Where science does come into the picture, it is to serve the narrative, not to shape it.
500WS delivered the knife thrust in an open (read: anonymous) letter in the January 21 edition of Scientific American. What was 500WS’s beef with Lander? He apparently was not nice to the staff at the White House Science Office. That in itself should not be disqualifying, given the long history of — shall we say — domineering personalities in the White House. But 500WS had a smoking gun, in the form of a 2016 article Lander had published in the journal Cell called “The Heroes of CRISPR.”
Lander’s article was intended to trace the convoluted scientific path from an obscure discovery of a novel means of bacterial immunity into a potentially revolutionary source of new medical therapies. There were many scientists along that path who saw new potentials, sometimes at risk to their careers, and moved the posts a little further (“heroes”). Lander’s unforgivable sin was to give what 500WS deemed to be insufficient praise to two of those heroes, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. This constituted an “erasure” of their contributions. The patriarchy doing its dirty business.
In defense of their claim, 500WS cited another article, published in 2016 in American Scientist and written by the historian Michael Morange. Independent confirmation! But it is hard to discern an erasure from a close reading of Morange’s article. Lander in fact wrote extensively about Doudna’s and Charpentier’s contributions. Where Morange found fault was with Lander’s emphasis on and placement of their contributions. He mentioned their names in the middles of paragraphs, for example, rather than in the topic sentences. Again, hardly an erasure.
Eric Lander’s nomination was therefore taken down by a campaign of gossip, innuendo, and anonymous smears, fueled by status anxiety. The Mean Girls won, but the victory was hollow. A month after Lander left the scene, the White House science office is still riven with infighting, mistrust, and bullying, despite the 500WS’s favored candidate, Alondra Nelson, having been installed in Lander’s place. The toxicity, it seems, was not coming from Eric Lander.
There’s a broader question surrounding the Lander debacle: do women scientists, as a class, actually have something to complain about?
A clue may be found in this article, published in Nature Geoscience, authored by several women geoscientists. The article featured a cartoon, captioned “The hostile obstacle course that women and BIPOC researchers have to endure in STEMM.” On the left is a smug white man, looking at a black woman contemporary, both at the beginning of their ascents up the academic career staircase. The white man’s face has a punchable smirk plastered over it, while the black woman’s face seethes with pent-up rage. The white man’s staircase is marked out with guideposts, ramps, and helpful signs to ease his climb. The black woman’s staircase is littered with land mines, razor wire, flames, spikes, broken steps, and explosions. In a nice touch, the woman’s ankles are shackled to a ball and chain.
If this cartoon bore even the slightest resemblance to reality, anger might be justified. Academic careers are, in fact, littered with numerous traps, landmines, and obstacles. But everyone faces them, men included. Here is where the dissonance comes in. The lead author of this article sits at the pinnacle of the academic pyramid: she is a tenured professor of geology who occupies an endowed chair. Not many can say that. The two scientists who were supposedly erased by Eric Lander both won Nobel Prizes for their pioneering work on CRISPR technology. No erasure there!
In the end, there is simply no substantive case for the systematic oppression of women or minorities in the sciences. Every woman scientist I have known well enough to know her opinion on the matter realizes this, and does what every scientist does to advance in her career: focuses on the science, trains the students, publishes the papers, writes the books, engages with colleagues, damns the torpedoes. This approach is what makes science virtually the last of our meritocracies, however precariously. Science and society benefit enormously from the gauntlet, as do scientists.
When I have seen rage — and it undoubtedly exists — it arises from a mismatch of expectations and reality. The Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity mania that is sweeping our culture strives to instill an expectation among women and minorities that their path to success will somehow — should somehow — be privileged. Science needs them! Science wants them! Science benefits from them! None of these assertions is actually true, of course. But the expectation is planted, forcefully, endlessly, and uncritically.
Rage is the natural outcome of that expectation being thwarted by reality. Accommodating the rage will be the death of science. 500WS is not doing any favors, to their like-minded adherents or to science.