Commentary / World

Competitive culture brings out the worst in scientists

by Faye Flam

Bloomberg

The researcher who reportedly created the first gene-edited babies might be afflicted with a form of ethical Dunning-Kruger syndrome — ignorance of one’s own ignorance. In interviews and a promotional YouTube video, He Jiankui telegraphed faith that his experiment will be remembered as a pioneering feat and a landmark in medical progress.

The field as a whole condemned this use of gene editing as unethical and criminally negligent. But even so, the episode should prompt scientists to take a good hard look in the mirror.

The drive to be a pioneer is part of scientific culture. Being first is rewarded with glory, fame, prizes and authority. People listen to you, whether or not you possess a modicum of good judgment. Rule-breaking gets conflated with independent thinking and innovation.

Being impervious to rules and what others think can be an asset in pursuit of knowledge. Just look at James Watson, who is back in the news thanks to a new PBS documentary.

Watson was a big winner in the race to discover the structure of DNA, but the arrogant, narcissistic style that helped him believe in his own novel thinking and propelled him to stardom later cost him his job and earned him a reputation as racist windbag.

I started thinking about the effect of scientific competition while discussing the gene-editing case with McGill University bioethicist Jonathan Kimmelman. If you’re a meticulous and conscientious researcher, he said, that’s great for society and possibly bad for your career. Although some news outlets have referred to He as a rogue scientist, that’s not entirely accurate. He absorbed his image of what a great scientist should be from the wider culture.

“It’s important to recognize that this person trained at important U.S. institutions and is a product of mainstream science,” said Kimmelman. “This is not someone who taught himself with a cookbook manual and was working in his garage.”

Kimmelman has written a book about the now infamous 1999 gene therapy experiments at the University of Pennsylvania. Investigative reports showed how financial conflicts of interest, combined with the desire to be heroes, drove the researchers there to rush human trials of gene therapy. That came to a crashing halt when the therapy killed an 18-year-old subject, Jesse Gelsinger.

Had nobody died, the Penn team might have been hailed as winners. The gene editing experiment, however, will be remembered as unethical, even if the babies remain healthy. The benefits are marginal compared to the risks; the treatment was aimed at making the twins resistant to HIV, but there are much safer and more reliable ways of avoiding infection.

That same winner-take-all culture may explain something about Watson, now 90, whose racist and sexist statements have made him so toxic to the scientific community that the head of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander, had to apologize last year after toasting Watson’s achievement.

An insightful piece in the medical website STAT paraphrases Watson’s colleagues pondering how someone so smart could be so insensitive, so resistant to the 21st century science on race, and, ultimately, so self-destructive:

The answer, they say, lies in Watson’s historic achievements — most notably, co-discovering the structure of DNA in 1953 — and the way he accomplished them. They inflated his belief not only in his genius but also in how to succeed: by listening to his gut, by opposing the establishment consensus, and by barely glancing at the edifice of facts on which a scientific field is built.

That is, ignoring other people helped him get ahead, and when the risk paid off, it reinforced the perception that he was smarter than everyone else in every way.

A similar brand of narcissism comes through in various interviews with Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on polymerase chain reaction — a way to amplify DNA that revolutionized criminal forensics and genetic testing.

In his 1999 book, detailed in a London Review of Books piece titled “Nobel Savage,” Mullis claims that HIV does not cause AIDS, and, even weirder, that psychologists are idiots for not giving enough credence to astrology.

The story of the gene-edited babies gets weirder by the day, with the latest viral news story proclaiming He might face the death penalty. The evidence for this looks thin, but he has been fired from his job, is under house arrest and it seems likely his career is dead. And the lesson is not just for him, but for scientists, and for us all: Rewarding boldness in medical research — at the expense of care and thoughtfulness — is surely not in our best interest.

Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.