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End Merit As We Know It

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eye on the news

End Merit As We Know It

The ousting of President Biden’s science advisor shows that sensitivity increasingly trumps expertise. February 14, 2022
Politics and law
Health Care

The best way to understand a society, social anthropologists say, is to start by studying its most bizarre, irrational, and self-defeating practice. If you can figure that out, everything else in the culture begins to make more sense.

In that light, consider President Biden’s firing of his top science advisor, Eric Lander. Lander was engaged in launching a $7.5 billion research agency to apply novel genomic methods to the treatment and reversal of cancer. At a White House press conference on February 2, the president called the agency “a central effort of the Biden-Harris administration.” Its aim, he said, was “to cut the cancer death rate in half in the next 25 years” and with this and other steps “to end cancer as we know it.”

In Lander, the president had an unusually well-qualified executive. Though trained as a mathematician, not a biologist, Lander has built the Broad Institute in Cambridge into a leading research group that has pioneered advanced genomic techniques. He had the special knowledge and managerial competence required to execute Biden’s ambitious anti-cancer program. Yet on February 7, a mere five days after Biden called for halving cancer deaths, Lander was forced to resign over a second-order management issue: that he had treated some of his female staff harshly.

Given all that Lander might have accomplished toward defeating cancer, why would Biden fire him over something so trivial in comparison? The reason has to do with the increasingly vicious tribalization of American politics. When people start to think of themselves as embattled groups, any member of the opposing group is seen as a fair target for assassination. Lander, to the manifest detriment of cancer research, was a victim of tribal warfare prosecuted by radical feminists, a lobby that Biden lacked the courage to challenge.

The feminist assault on Lander began the moment his appointment as science advisor was announced. A collective called 500 Women Scientists wrote a letter in Scientific American in January 2021 accusing Lander of being white and male. They went on to attack Lander for a 2016 article he wrote in Cell about the role of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in the invention of the CRISPR technique of genetic manipulation. That article, the 500 Women wrote, “erased the contributions of two women colleagues. This conspicuous exclusion is emblematic of the forces in science that hold back women and scientists of color from attaining the level of prominence he enjoys.”

Stepping over the cant about exclusion, the statement about erasure is simply false. In his essay, Lander explicitly described the contributions of Charpentier and Doudna, hailing them as among the “heroes of CRISPR.” His essay did indeed come under criticism for subtly downplaying the Charpentier–Doudna work. But a minor downplaying is not erasure. And in any case, Lander’s discussion of Charpentier’s and Doudna’s role had nothing to do with their sex and everything to do with the fact that Lander’s Broad Institute protégé, Feng Zhang, was a rival of the California team for both patents and scientific glory.

One could criticize Lander for writing a review in which he had a severe conflict of interest, or the editors of Cell for their naivete and bad judgement in publishing it, but sexism did not come into it. This distinction eluded Senator Tammy Duckworth, who nonetheless forced Lander into a needless apology for sexism during his Senate confirmation hearing.

The false narrative paved the way for Lander to be undermined by his female employees. Science is a competitive endeavor and has long had an idiom of frontal verbal argument that helps cut down bad ideas quickly. This aggressive culture, it’s probably fair to say, is more to men’s than women’s liking.

Within a few months of Lander’s tenure as White House science advisor, women started complaining about his harsh manner. Rachel Wallace, then general counsel to Lander’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, accused Lander of bullying behavior. “Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated,” she told Politico. An investigation was launched and concluded that Lander had spoken to women “in a demeaning or abrasive way.”

The investigation wrapped up in December, but nothing happened until its findings were leaked to Politico this month—obviously with the intent of damaging Lander’s chances of keeping his job. He apologized profusely. But apologies work only with people willing to seek reconciliation, not with activists who see them as a signal for further attack. Wallace dug the knife in further. “Lander’s apology did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” she said. The president could have sent Lander for charm training. Instead, Biden cut him loose.

What exactly was the “egregious behavior” that Wallace mentioned? Did Lander touch anyone inappropriately, make unwanted advances, or commit any kind of sexual harassment? The investigation found not the slightest evidence. Even stranger, it found “no credible evidence” that he treated men and women differently. Lander’s sole crime was caustic speech, to which apparently only women took offense.

If Lander were really so terrible a boss, surely his alleged maltreatment of women would have come to light at Harvard. Yet after his defenestration, reporters at the Boston Globe last week failed to find any evidence of this. “I have never seen a single instance of sexist behavior from Eric,” said Karen Hong, who had been a graduate student in his lab for eight years. Lander’s firing exemplifies a serious problem: radical feminists have appropriated provisions designed to protect women from harassment in the workplace and have weaponized them into potent techniques for toppling men from jobs that women want.

The White House is now searching for a new science advisor to replace Lander and resume the task of launching Biden’s anti-cancer moonshot. The top two candidates, according to Politico, are—you guessed it—women. Alondra Nelson is a sociologist specializing in racial issues. This kind of expertise, unfortunately, gives her zero qualification to understand cancer immunogenetics, select genomic approaches with clinical promise, or indeed to deal with any other of the many technical issues that cross the science advisor’s desk.

A kind thing that could be said about the other top candidate, Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist, is that she is ethically challenged. Tasked last year by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with assigning reviewers for a submitted paper, she neglected to inform the editors that one of the authors was her brother-in-law and that she had co-published papers with him and other authors on overlapping subjects. Both omissions violated the journal’s guidelines. After the high-visibility paper was published, it was found to contain such serious errors that the authors had to withdraw it.

Like the 500 Women Scientists who think that they can make racist accusations against others without being considered racist themselves, Lubchenco doesn’t see her own ethical violations as any impediment to lecturing the rest of the world. “Violations of scientific integrity policies should be taken seriously and considered comparable to violations of government ethics rules,” she and Nelson wrote in an editorial in Science last month.

Maybe Lander was a reprehensibly aggressive boss. Maybe the incompetence of some of his women staff drove him to make overly cutting remarks. It’s not good that he drove some women to tears, if indeed this allegation was true. But compared with the magnitude of the tasks he was addressing, who in their right mind would consider that a firing offense? Lander was sandbagged by an activist group that saw the opportunity to seize his job for one of their own. That’s their gain. The losers are reason, science, and, very possibly, all who may in the future be afflicted with the scourge of cancer.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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