Monday, February 13, 2023

​Eric Lander Left the White House Under a Cloud. Now He’s Back at Work, and Not Everyone’s Happy.

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Eric Lander, who resigned as President Biden’s science adviser after a White House investigation found that he had bullied and demeaned subordinates, is headed back to the Broad Institute — and some inside the prestigious research center say it hasn’t done enough to respond to their concerns that such behavior could repeat itself.

Lander had been on a two-year leave from the institute in Cambridge, Mass., where he was the founding director for more than a decade, to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The cabinet member stepped down in February 2022 after the investigation, first reported by Politico, found “credible evidence” that he was “bullying” his general counsel, a woman, and of multiple other women complaining that he “spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way” in front of colleagues.

Lander’s future at the institute, which is independently operated but formally affiliated with MIT and Harvard, was an open question until Friday morning, when the research center’s director announced by email that, starting in February, Lander will be returning as a core institute member, once again in charge of his lab there, and in the title of founding director emeritus. He will also resume his tenured faculty positions at MIT and Harvard Medical School, where he is a professor of biology and systems biology, respectively.

“At Broad, we have high expectations for all Broadies to foster an inclusive culture of respect, regardless of role, stature, or identity,” wrote Todd Golub, the institute’s director. “Eric also deeply values this culture and is committed to upholding it.”

But inside the institute, the news was met with surprise and alarm from dozens of researchers and other staffers. Some had previously speculated that Lander’s return was imminent after he was photographed in December at a ceremony for an award that bears his name. Yet at a town hall that month, Jesse Souweine, the chief operating officer, had told Broad employees that Lander’s leave would last “through January 2023, so any question about his return is being handled with the board. So I don’t have any new news to report,” according to video obtained by The Chronicle. When The Chronicle asked in mid-December when the board of directors would make a decision, a Broad spokesperson said there was no timeframe.

In a Slack forum viewable to all employees on Friday, Broad employees expressed frustration that the decision had seemingly been made without staff input, according to screenshots obtained by The Chronicle. And they noted that Golub’s message had not mentioned information they felt relevant — for instance, whether the institute had conducted its own investigation into Lander’s behavior, whether or what Lander had learned from his experience in the White House, whether his behavior will be monitored upon his return to a leadership role, or whether measures would be taken to safeguard members of his lab.

“With Eric Lander’s return to the Broad now official, does anyone else feel like it’s weird how much his resignation from the WH has been skimmed over?” one staffer asked the Slack channel. “The messaging here seems very vague. I’m curious also about how this decision was made — who was consulted, and whose voices were listened to?” Forty people responded with an arrow emoji pointing to the statement, and three people responded with the exploding-head emoji.

Another staffer noted that Golub’s message referenced “often tough discussions about academic culture here and across the nation” following Lander’s departure from the White House. In response, the Broad staffer wrote: “I’m so glad that such discussions took place. I must have somehow missed them. Are the results of these discussions documented somewhere, so that I can inform myself? Thank you!”

One staffer said that they and a colleague had spoken with leaders this month and “expressed concerns about transparency around this decision, that the Broad community deserves a platform to talk about their concerns, and that leadership should communicate how Eric has reflected on his behavior at the White House and what accountability mechanisms exist to make sure no toxic behavioris brought to the Broad.”

“Good to hear that nothing came of the concerns you raised!” another replied.

“The fact that public scrutiny was glossed over by the institution,” wrote another, “could discourage people from speaking up if they were to find themselves in a sticky situation again.”

Karen Zusi-Tran, a spokeswoman for the institute, said by email: “We are committed to being an open and inclusive workplace, one where everyone regardless of seniority can do and support great science in a respectful, productive environment. All Broad employees and affiliates have an obligation to follow our policies and to maintain proper standards of conduct at all times.” She did not answer questions about how the decision about Lander had been made or whether Lander’s behavior would be specifically monitored.

She also said the institute had not identified “any formal complaints in any available records related to Dr. Lander from his time at Broad.”

Zusi-Tran said the institute encourages employees to speak up about behavioral concerns and takes all of them seriously. “We reiterate these methods, as well as the importance of reporting concerns, regularly with managers and individuals within the institution and on our website,” she said.

In 2004, Lander became the founding director of the Broad Institute, which was started with a gift from the philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, and he oversaw the Cambridge research center’s rise to an internationally renowned biomedical and genomic research center with nearly 3,000 employees and affiliated personnel. It has produced, for instance, some of the earliest discoveries about the gene-editing technology CRISPR. Lander himself — a geneticist, molecular biologist, and mathematician — was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, the international collaboration that mapped the human genome from 1990 to 2003. But even prior to joining the Biden administration, his career was also marked with controversy, including aggressive moves against scientific rivals.

Last year, shortly after he had resigned from the White House, The Boston Globe interviewed three former employees of his, who said that he was a demanding boss but that they did not feel that his behavior rose to the level of what he had been recently accused of. “In fact, all three said they admired his passion and brilliance and enjoyed working with him,” the Globe reporters wrote. “And they didn’t feel he was harder on women than men, unlike the allegations that led to his resignation.” At the time, Lander apologized and wrote: “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.”

On Friday morning, ahead of the public announcement of Lander’s return, the Globe ran an opinion piece with the headline “Eric Lander is getting uncanceled.” It suggested the scientist had been unfairly pilloried for the complaints of “a vocal few” that did not hold up to closer examination.

The article drew on interviews with more than 20 of Lander’s colleagues at the Broad Institute and elsewhere, including “10 prominent female scientists who have known him for a collective total of nearly 200 work-years” and said they “categorically repudiate the accusations that he’s sexist.”

But on Slack, staffers at the Broad were unimpressed. As one wrote: “Much of that opinion piece seems to rest on people saying ‘I never saw him to be abusive so he couldn’t be abusive.’ If you understand abuse dynamics, you know that statement is not true.”

In an interview, a female graduate student who requested anonymity for fear of retribution told The Chronicle: “This sets a precedent that will discourage other people from coming forward with concerns about Eric’s behavior specifically and more broadly, behavior by senior leadership that is perceived as bullying or sexist, given the lack of follow-through and accountability in Eric’s case.”

Lander did not immediately return a request for comment.

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