Days following Eric Lander’s resignation as President Biden’s top science adviser after he admitted demeaning and disrespecting colleagues, three former employees of the renowned genetics research center he ran in Cambridge called him a demanding boss, with one saying Lander could unwittingly make staff feel “belittled or used or just insulted.”
But none of them ― two women and a man ― said Lander’s behavior at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard rose to the level that cost him his job in the Biden administration. In fact, all three said they admired his passion and brilliance and enjoyed working with him. And they didn’t feel he was harder on women than men, unlike the allegations that led to his resignation.
“It’s weird. Eric seems to lack some social-skill ‘empathy gene,’ and I think he is genuinely surprised and mortified when that lack catches up to him,” said Fintan Steele, who oversaw communications at the Broad from 2005 to 2010, in an e-mail. “In my experience, gender is irrelevant: what mattered was how he perceived your alignment with his goals and strategies to reach them.”
Lander declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Some former students of Lander’s were surprised by suggestions of gender discrimination in the federal Office of Science Technology and Policy. “I have never seen a single instance of sexist behavior from Eric,” said Karen Hong a graduate student in Lander’s lab at the Whitehead Institute from 1993 to 2001 and now a partner at Novo Ventures, a life sciences investor. “I don’t think he is wired mentally to do that.”
Indeed, Hong helped Dr. Deborah Hung, an infectious diseases professor at Harvard Medical School and the Broad, to raise money in 2019 for an annual award in Lander’s name that honors a postdoctoral fellow for outstanding research and a commitment to promoting women in science.
Lander, a Cabinet-level official, stepped down Monday evening after he acknowledged ― and apologized for ― mistreating employees in the federal office. His pattern of behavior violated Biden’s pledge to run an administration characterized by respect and professionalism.
An internal review by the White House found credible evidence that Lander, who joined the office in January 2021 after taking a two-year leave of absence from the Broad, bullied staff in violation of the White House’s “safe and respectful workplace policy.”
“I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them,” Lander wrote in his resignation letter. “I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to reach our shared goals — including at times challenging and criticizing. But it is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women.”
The internal review, first reported by Politico, was triggered by a complaint last year by Rachel Wallace, who served as the office’s general counsel. It found that multiple women had complained about negative interactions with Lander. Wallace has also accused Lander of retaliating against her by demoting her to deputy counsel. The investigation did not find credible evidence of gender-based discrimination and concluded that Wallace’s reassignment was appropriate.
In addition to his leave from the Broad, Lander ― who helped found the research center in 2003 ― took unpaid leaves from faculty positions at MIT and Harvard. Spokespersons for the three institutions declined to say whether they ever investigated complaints against Lander. Nor would they say whether he will be allowed to return.
Steele, the former Broad communications head, said Lander is one of the smartest people he has known. A Brooklyn native and captain of the math team at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Lander won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1987 when he was 30 years old and played a central role in the Human Genome Project. He has an extraordinary ability to make complicated scientific concepts accessible, and he set audacious goals for Broad staff, according to Steele.
“In trying to bring people along in that pursuit, he will flatter, cajole, confront or even steamroll,” Steele wrote. “If you are on the receiving end of these efforts, and have even the slightest bit of insecurity, it can become immensely uncomfortable. You can feel belittled or used or just insulted.”
Steele said Lander could become impatient if he didn’t immediately grasp an abstruse scientific concept that his boss thought was obvious.
“He just expected you to understand and know stuff that his mind had already taken in and processed and that sometimes took me longer,” said Steele, who now lives in Boulder, Colo. “He’s a force of nature.”
Ellen Clegg, a former Boston Globe editor who worked at the institute from 2009 to 2012 as deputy communications director between long stints at the newspaper, said Lander was hard-driving, but she never felt bullied.
“I found him to be a demanding boss, but I also found him to be fair and to be absolutely inspiring,” said Clegg, who retired from the Globe in 2018 as editorial page editor and has since done consulting work for the Broad. “I do think that the tenor of scientific debate can sometimes be very heated, and perhaps that created a culture clash inside the Beltway.”
In her 3 ½ years writing about science at the Broad, Clegg said, Lander pushed her as a writer and a thinker. He had been a student of the renowned New Yorker writer John McPhee at Princeton University and credited McPhee’s course, “The Literature of Fact,” for a lifelong passion in nonfiction writing.
In contrast to the allegations that Lander mistreated female employees in Washington, Clegg said she saw him empower women at the Broad. In an example that occurred after Clegg left, she said, Lander had two female researchers lead efforts to convert the institute’s genomic sequencing platform into a 24-hour COVID-19 testing platform that has performed more than 25 million tests since the start of the pandemic.
“I never experienced any sexist behavior on his part, or homophobic,” said Clegg, who is gay.
Clegg said she wasn’t surprised Lander resigned given that Biden had announced on his first day in office that he would immediately terminate anyone who was caught disrespecting a colleague.
Another former longtime Broad employee confirmed that staffers had a phrase to describe how they felt when they worked closely with him and he pointed out shortcomings: “the Icarus effect.”
“When you fly close to the sun, your wings sometimes feel the heat,” said the woman, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “You get burned, singed ... when whatever you were bringing to him just didn’t measure up.”
Nonetheless, she said, he was always respectful. Lander’s departure from the government is “a real loss for the office, for Biden’s team, but especially for our country’s future science policy,” she said.
Lander’s appointment by Biden drew mixed reviews from the scientific community. While many applauded his work at the Broad, others warned that his selection failed to acknowledge past missteps or the need to diversify the highest ranks of science.
In particular, critics cited several controversies in his past, including Lander’s toast of the Nobel laureate James Watson, who has expressed racist and misogynistic views, and Lander’s perceived slight of two female researchers who helped develop the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR.
One nonprofit advocacy group, 500 Women Scientists, said in an opinion piece in Scientific American that his nomination “fails to meet the moment.”
Emily Pinckney, executive director of 500 Women Scientists, said this week that Lander’s resignation underscores that he has been a “bully” in the scientific community. She said his behavior “happens all the time” in the life sciences and reflects the failure of academic and scientific institutions to hold people like him accountable.
“We always see men in positions of power do whatever they want, and they get away with it in university settings because they bring in a lot of money,” she said.
But a prominent female scientist who worked closely with Lander at the Broad and now holds a high-ranking position at a medical school spoke fondly of him.
“He is very talented, has great vision, impeccable scientific taste, and tremendous energy,” said Jill Mesirov, who was associate director and chief informatics officer at the Broad until 2015 and is now associate vice chancellor for computational health sciences at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “I will be forever grateful to him for the opportunities he gave me and the role he played in making me the scientist I am today.”
Lander headed Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, an effort to end cancer that is a personal priority for Biden, whose son died of cancer in 2015. He also played a role in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism. Ryan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.