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Eric Lander is getting uncanceled

The genomics pioneer left the White House after being accused of bullying. Now, on the verge of his return to the Broad Institute, colleagues are speaking up for him.

Eric Lander on Jan. 16, 2021, when he was the nominee to be the director of the incoming White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

In early 2021, the Boston science community sent one of its brightest stars to the White House: Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

I’ve been covering health and science in Boston for more than two decades, and I’ve never heard anyone called “brilliant” and “visionary” so often. Nor have I ever seen any new scientific institution rocket as swiftly to world-class powerhouse status as the Broad Institute did after it opened in 2004. And when the pandemic hit, Lander and colleagues oversaw the institute’s quick pivot from genomic research to mass COVID tests — more than 37 million in total.

So it seemed to bode well when President Biden tapped Lander as his science czar, elevating that role to a cabinet position for the first time in history and asking him to set the scientific course for the next 75 years. “There could not be a better choice for America’s chief scientist,” renowned physician-writer Atul Gawande exulted at the time.

Lander dove right in to guiding national policy on huge, complex issues from climate change to nuclear fusion to pandemic preparedness.

Then, just over a year later, he was suddenly gone.

Politico published an article reporting complaints that Lander was sexist, had bullied staffers, and had created a toxic culture. Lander instantly resigned. He apologized to Biden for unintentionally “being disrespectful and demeaning” to some colleagues, and wrote, “I will take this lesson forward.”

That apology seemed to help fuel a public shaming. The American Association for the Advancement of Science immediately disinvited Lander from speaking at its annual conference, issuing a statement that his reported conduct was not “befitting a scientist or scientific leader.” Top journals like Science and Nature referred to him as “disgraced,” part of a media pile-on that cast him as “a brilliant jerk.” In Scientific American, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes said Lander made her think of the killer Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment.”

In the aftermath, Lander, long a leading voice on science issues, fell publicly silent. But now that his two years of leave from the Broad have ended, he will return to his tenured faculty position at the institute, though not as director.

For months, he’d been reduced to a symbol of every mean boss and of the ongoing reckoning by American science with problematic conduct by powerful lab leaders.

But judging by interviews with more than 20 of his colleagues in recent weeks, Lander, 65, could also be a symbol for something else: That, sometimes, such cancellations — and the use of toxic words like “bully” and “sexist” — can involve a rush to judgment, a simplification by a vocal few that does not necessarily stand up to broader scrutiny.

Harvard professor and Broad Institute member Pardis Sabeti says the public censure of Lander gave her a feeling of despair. Someone she knew well and had seen do tremendous good was “being made into a caricature — this portrayal that is very different from the person you know.”

Lander’s other defenders include colleagues who worked with him recently at the White House and for many years at the Broad — among them, 10 prominent female scientists who have known him for a collective total of nearly 200 work-years and told me they categorically repudiate the accusations that he’s sexist.

Also among Lander’s defenders is Gilda Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and current president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2022, she co-signed the association’s statement disinviting Lander from speaking. But recently, when she was approached about a new nonprofit Lander founded, Science for America, she reconsidered her opinion. She was impressed by his record of using science to improve the world, she says, and is now working with him to advance STEM equity and education.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Eric Lander flanked President Biden as he signed executive orders on climate change on Jan. 27, 2021.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

“There was an initial reaction,” Barabino says. Stepping back and having more time “gives everyone a chance to reflect a bit and maybe learn more, be more informed, or just be more sensitive to the nuances.”

And, she adds, “You just can’t lose the value. We’re all learners, and it’s a process.”

Lander’s “value” has been on display not only in his time leading the Broad but also as a MacArthur Genius Award winner and co-leader of the Human Genome Project. He is one of the most cited scientists in the world. He spent eight years as co-chair of President Obama’s advisory council on science and technology. His legendary freshman biology course won him MIT’s top teaching award. He helped launch The Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate people wrongfully convicted.

Lander has long been controversial as well. He declined to comment for this story, but he has often admitted that he’s pushy — and sometimes pushes too hard and too loudly, that he has sharp elbows, that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. At the same time, he has a record of building teams and institutions with supportive and diverse cultures, and he has championed a long line of women in science, to the point that appreciative female mentees named a Broad Institute prize in his honor.

Shari Grossman, a former grad student, says that when Lander resigned from the White House, “It hurt my heart. We still need him in science.” Computational biologist Anne Carpenter has called out bad behavior in science before but says of Lander: In 15 years of working with him, “I have definitely never experienced or witnessed anything sexist, and nothing toxic or harsh.”

“He’s not biased in any way other than that he wants to get work done,” says Sheila Dodge, general manager of the Broad’s genomic analysis platform. “Like ‘I’m here to get something done. I want to move the needle.’ So he approaches every situation with the same amount of rigor, the same amount of intensity.”

That urgency can be “jarring or disorienting” for people not used to it, she says, but those who know him better come to understand that “he has this unbelievably enormous heart and just wants to do good.”

One more Broad defender: Sonia Vallabh, whom Lander has helped in her quest to develop a treatment for the inherited disorder she can expect to kill her while she is young — as it did her mother — if she can’t stop it in time.

She describes going into meetings with Lander with her heart in her throat, anticipating “fierce red-lining” of writing she had labored over and thought was finalized. But “the fact that he needed the work product to be really good was a form of respect for our mission,” she says. And “I would never have chosen to be comfortable rather than learn from what Lander had to say.”

These admiring descriptions also offer clues as to what may have gone wrong in Washington, a very different setting.

‘Comments you frequently hear in dissertation defenses’

Many colleagues had advised Lander against going to the White House, warning him that he would find it far harder to get things done.

They were right. Lander did face monumental basic challenges at the agency he led, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It had a tiny budget — roughly $5 million a year, less than 1/100th the Broad’s — and only four open full-time job slots, so additional staff had to be begged or borrowed.

Even the agency’s physical office was a step down: a warren of rooms with none of the airy collective spaces the Broad offers to encourage interaction. And with the pandemic still in full swing, most staffers were working remotely — not exactly conducive to the morale-building and inspiration he was known for at home.

The greatest challenge of all, the one that ultimately led to his departure, may have arisen from his first task. In the post-Trump quest to restore science in the White House, Lander wanted to hire the best talent he could — but it seems a longtime government lawyer repeatedly told him, “You can’t.”

Rachel Wallace, a civil servant for more than 20 years across six agencies, rose during the Trump administration to be general counsel and chief operating officer of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. She served as the agency’s adviser on matters of ethics and procedure, and she repeatedly objected to various efforts by Lander to move the hiring process along, as she described in a letter of complaint.

Lander frequently sought second opinions from the White House Counsel’s Office — for example, on whether Wallace was right that an academic expert on energy would have to give up all his federal grants to serve as a one-day-a-week consultant to the agency. White House lawyers saw no such requirement, and their advice generally allowed him more leeway.

Sonia Vallabh, right, is one of several women at the Broad Institute who support Lander.Monica Jorge/NYT

In September 2021, in concert with White House lawyers, Lander “reassigned” Wallace: She would remain the agency’s chief operating officer and take no cut in pay, but she would become deputy counsel instead of general counsel. (Lander himself never met in person with Wallace, who did not report to him directly; he spoke with her only on several phone calls and Zooms.)

Wallace filed a complaint alleging that she had been the victim of gender discrimination and that her demotion involved retaliation. The confidential White House investigation that followed found no evidence of either discrimination or retaliation, as even Wallace’s letter acknowledges. (She was later replaced by another woman, and six of seven deputy directors under Lander were women.)

In her letter of complaint and elsewhere, Wallace also accused Lander of a broad gamut of ethical violations, which the White House rejected.

The White House’s inquiry, which interviewed seven witnesses, did find that multiple women had complained that Lander had spoken to them in a “demeaning and abrasive way.” It also found that some agency leaders had excluded Wallace from some meetings and assignments. In response, senior White House officials instructed the agency to try harder to improve its culture and to include Wallace more.

Days after the White House rejected her request to be reinstated, Wallace appeared in Politico under a headline saying Lander “bullied and demeaned subordinates,” alleging that he called colleagues names, disparaged and humiliated them, and left “numerous women” in tears. A handful of anonymous others in the story backed her up, using words like “abuse” and “aggressor.”

I spoke with a half-dozen agency staffers, women and men, who said their own experiences did not jibe with these descriptions, though they were aware that some others perceived and felt differently.

They said Lander, who did tend to get loud, whether in frustration or excitement, clearly rubbed some people the wrong way — but that did not make him an outlier in White House leadership, where the pace at the pinnacle of power is blistering. They observed that the unhappiest staffers tended to be the handful whose work Lander had found seriously wanting and who had been demoted or managed out of the agency.

Jason Matheny, then Lander’s deputy director for national security and now CEO of the RAND Corporation, didn’t see “evidence of malice” from Lander, he says. “I never saw behavior that I would have described as abusive or toxic.”

Surprised by the news coverage, Matheny asked his team about it, and ultimately about 20 people in all. “Nobody on my team had seen the kind of behavior that was being described. And when I asked other teams, ‘What is the worst thing you’ve seen?’ It was statements like [Lander telling someone], ‘What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense.’ That was the worst I heard.”

In the coverage at the time, virtually the only voices from the agency of nearly 150 people were those of Wallace and anonymous accusers. Readers understandably came away with the impression that Lander’s narrow apology for speaking disrespectfully confirmed all the public accusations against him, of sexism and abuse and bullying. Some critics also resurrected claims that Lander was sexist because they believed a review paper he published in 2016 had given short shrift to research by CRISPR scientist Jennifer Doudna, who later won a Nobel Prize.

A lawyer for Wallace, who works for the Government Accountability Project, declined to comment. But when Lander resigned, her lawyers said she deserved the credit. “Because of the bravery of a whistleblower, OSTP director Eric Lander has resigned following reports of toxic workplace culture,” the Government Accountability Project tweeted.

Matheny from RAND sees two central factors at work in the course of events: the powerful impact a single employee can have on a whole office, and the difference between Washington and the blunter settings where Lander had spent his career. “You had a sufficient number of people who had been rubbed the wrong way by Lander comments that they found belittling, but [they were] the kinds of comments you frequently hear in dissertation defenses and science labs,” he says.

Lander’s long-time colleagues point out that what most sets him apart is his way of getting them to aim higher, be bolder, stretch beyond what they may have realized they could do. It seems likely that during the isolation and rawness of the pandemic, among a group of stressed strangers, the style and methods that had brought Lander love and glory at the Broad came off quite differently for some.

Some Broad colleagues, like genomics platform leader Sheila Dodge, say they hope Lander’s White House experience won’t “reduce the sort of boldness that he innately has.”

“I can’t wait to work with Eric again,” she says.

Freelance reporter Carey Goldberg has been Boston bureau chief for The New York Times and Bloomberg News and has covered health and science for the Globe and WBUR.