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When a great researcher isn’t a great person

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
May 21, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 21


What a crazy couple of weeks we’ve had in the world of science. Who could have guessed that the simple action of toasting a scientist’s birthday would cause such a storm? Under normal circumstances this should not have been a big deal, but the scientist in question is none other than geneticist James Watson.

Watson is known for his contributions to the world of genetics through the discovery of DNA’s double helix, in collaboration with Francis Crick, with whom he and Maurice Wilkins share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But he is also known for his long-held sexist and racist views, which he has expressed in public on numerous occasions.

Watson was the subject of the toast, but it was the toastmaster who drew ire. The offender is Eric Lander, the director of Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard. At a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Lander toasted Watson for his 90th birthday and his role in the Human Genome Project.

The attendees of the meeting, a room full of genomic researchers, seemed to enjoy the celebrations, at least according to their accounts on social media. But when word got out, the larger community did not take well to this recognition of Watson.

Much criticism ensued, and soon enough, Lander apologized on Twitter and via email to colleagues with a brief statement that concluded with “I was wrong to toast, and I’m sorry.”

For many scientists, this apology marked the end of the matter, but others, such as biologist Michael Eisen, did not let off. Angry and frustrated, he took to Twitter to suggest that the community should reflect and seriously consider “which scientists we choose to honor & why.” Eisen also acknowledged his growing frustration with the silence he has observed over the years, telling news outlet Stat, “We have too much of a tradition of holding our tongues and not expressing anger in science.”

I sympathize with Eisen, and while I agree with his view that silence tends to be the average reaction when it comes to a scientist’s politics or ethics, for example, I think that it is possible to express anger without intending offense. Eisen tends to be a good citizen in this regard, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of others who flock to social channels and take advantage of the relative anonymity that they offer to make inappropriate comments and/or use abusive language.

When we consider science history—recent or otherwise—it’s useful to separate the person’s views from the researcher’s work. Watson’s example demonstrates that one can be a great scientist but not necessarily a great person. While a scientist’s prowess in the lab may be brilliant and his or her contributions worthy of recognition, we must be careful to not give legitimacy to certain personal, discriminatory views like in this case by giving them undue exposure.

One other example of this dichotomy is Richard Feynman, the American theoretical physicist who was one of the awardees of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Feynman, who would have turned 100 on May 11, was also the subject of debate on social media two weeks ago. Like Watson, he was known for his brilliance but also for his sexist views. Although his opinions were not as extreme or as well documented as Watson’s, he is alleged to have exhibited troubling behaviors, some of which he described himself in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!” As was the case with Watson, the consensus in the scientific community seems to be that Feynman ultimately deserved the scientific accolades he received.


The scientific community would be a better, richer environment if we were able to (1) recognize that scientists who make phenomenal contributions can and will be flawed individuals and (2) speak out against prejudice and discrimination when we observe this among our peers.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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