The Tragedy of Lander

Given my previous history of harsh criticism of Eric Lander’s actions and character, people seem to expect me to be gloating at the news that his tenure as President Biden’s chief science advisor ended in ignominy after barely a year following an investigation that found he had bullied and belittled staffers.

I am unsurprised. I might even have “I tried to warn you….” on the tip of my tongue.

But I am not gloating.

The truth is that despite loathing him, I desperately wanted Lander to succeed. I hoped that maybe the things that had made him effective at organizing big science projects, and at running big institutions would make him good at running a federal agency. And that he would leave the worse parts of his nature behind. But these hopes were in vain.

And his failure is a tragedy.

Not for him – he personally got exactly what his actions warranted, and as much as I’d like him to end up unemployed in Greenland, I’m sure he’ll land on his feet.

Not for the public – there are many amazing scientific leaders in this country, and odds are the next person will be better at the job, which is primarily to empower the people working at the agency to do their jobs, a role Lander was monumentally terrible at.

The tragedy here is for science. At a time when the need for science has never been greater, but trust in scientific leadership never lower, we needed Biden’s science team to be successful. And this is NOT what success looks like.

The galling thing is that Lander knew this. He knew that there was more at stake here than another decoration of achievement on his personal ribbon rack. He had to know that to be successful in this role, he had to stop trying to prove he’s the smartest person in every room, to stop exhibiting disdain for people he couldn’t figure out how to exploit, to stop making everything about him. And he had to know that unlike in science where the people he treated poorly are too terrified to speak out against him, in politics those people go to an ever lurking press that is always eager to put their own fingerprints on the shiv.

But the real truth is this is on us. Anybody who has been anywhere near the human genome project in its many manifestations has known exactly what Lander is for decades. He doesn’t hide these behaviors. He’s not ashamed of them. He manifests them in public all the time.

Is anyone surprised that someone who would publish an essay that nakedly sought to steal credit for a major scientific advance from two women, would, in more private settings, treat female staffers poorly?

Is anyone surprised that someone who made the human genome project about him would have trouble suppressing his own ego for the public good?

And why is it that the fact that he is frequently a vicious and demeaning bully only coming to light now, when surely this is not a new behavior, meaning other senior scientists who’ve worked with him must have known?

The reality is that we in science not only tolerate these behaviors – we all too often celebrate them. How else do you explain Lander’s constant rise up the hierarchy of science to the point where he was arguably the most powerful person in science BEFORE he became the highest ranking scientist ever in the US government?

For too many years, too many scientists – especially those already in positions of power – were willing to overlook his manifest flaws because he was good for them. Good at raising money, good at accruing power and good at serially spinning one funding cycle of failed promises into justifications for greater investment.

There are many great leaders in science. But Lander is also not the only stinker who rose to power and prominence for all the wrong reasons. If he is not the type of person we want Biden and future presidents to pick to lead their science endeavors, we have to stop picking them to lead ours.

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