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MIT professor Eric Lander apologizes for praising controversial Nobel winner James Watson

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Eric Lander, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in 2002.

Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has apologized for toasting 90-year-old Nobel Prize winner James Watson over the weekend.

In a contrite e-mail to colleagues, first reported Monday by Stat, Lander said he was aware of Watson’s racist and misogynist views, and had even been present when the celebrated scientist made anti-Semitic statements, but ultimately agreed to praise Watson for his role in the Human Genome Project.

In his tribute to Watson at a Biology of Genomes meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Saturday, Lander credited Watson for “inspiring all of us to push the frontiers of science to benefit humankind.” He neglected to mention that the man who helped discover the double helix also has suggested there’s a link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges, and argued that there is racial disparity in intelligence based in biology.

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In his e-mail Monday, Lander said he should not have toasted Watson. Though he did make an oblique reference to Watson’s past statements when he called him “flawed,” that wasn’t enough, Lander said.

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“I’d like to do that now: I reject his views as despicable,” Lander wrote, according to Stat. “They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone. In retrospect, I should have followed my first instinct, which was to decline the invitation. As someone who has been on the receiving end of his abhorrent remarks, I should have been sensitive to the damage caused by recognizing him in any way.”

Before the apology, social media reacted angrily to Lander’s remarks.

“By toasting Jim Watson, Eric Lander is saying that sexism, racism, anti-semitism, and all sorts of forms of harassment and vile behavior by someone in power in science is A-OK — disgusting,” tweeted University of California-Davis professor Jonathan Eisen, who also posted a video of Lander’s tribute, calling it “a horrific action.”

“I hope we can all pause and think deeply about which scientists we choose to honor & why,” tweeted Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley. “How it is that someone everyone knows to be racist, sexist & anti-semitic is still among us, let alone toasted. And how many lives and careers have been & are being ruined by our silence?”

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After Lander’s apology, some on social media remained upset while others were relieved.

“This is a nice step in the right direction and good for you!” tweeted Julie Libarkin. “I’m wondering if a next step might be . . . asking Human Genome Project to honor someone who was left out or ostracized for gender/race/religion?”

In addition to the e-mail to his colleagues, Lander also tweeted a mea culpa.

“Last week I agreed to toast James Watson for the Human Genome Project on his 90th birthday,” he wrote. “My brief comment about his being ‘flawed’ did not go nearly far enough. His views are abhorrent: racist, sexist, anti-semitic. I was wrong to toast. I apologize.”