Com­pet­i­tive cul­ture brings out worst be­hav­ior, ego­tism among sci­en­tists

Woonsocket Call - - OPINION - By FAYE FLAM Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist. She has writ­ten for the Econ­o­mist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psy­chol­ogy To­day, Science and other pub­li­ca­tions. She has a de­gree in geo­physics from the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nolo

The re­searcher claim­ing to have 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, howev- er, 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-takeall 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 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.

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