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Genome-sequencing pioneer Eric Lander, one of the most powerful men in American science, did not embezzle funds from the institute he leads, sexually harass anyone, plagiarize, or fabricate data. But he became the target of venomous online attacks because of an essay he wrote on the history of CRISPR, the revolutionary genome-editing technology pioneered partly by his colleagues at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.
To be sure, Lander gave his foes some openings. He and the journal Cell, which published his essay, failed to disclose Lander’s potential conflict of interest when it comes to CRISPR. The essay, other scientists said, got several key facts wrong, and Lander later added what he called clarifications. Stirring the greatest anger, critics charged that rather than writing an objective history he downplayed the role of two key CRISPR scientists who happen to be women.
The episode created cracks in a dam that had long held back public criticism of Lander.
The outpouring of rage directed at him arises from what one veteran biomedical researcher calls “pent-up animosity” toward Lander and the Broad Institute, where he serves as director, that has built up over years.
Some of the brickbats hurled at Lander reflect professional jealousy, especially since he took an unconventional path into the top echelons of molecular biology. Some seem to be payback for the egos Lander bruised over the years, dating to his role in the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s. Some of the anger seems to stem from still-simmering animosity over what Lander and his institute represent to many: the triumph of Big Science in biology.
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