CRISPR IS A powerful gene-editing tool that has upended biology and could revolutionize medicine, but the Crispr controversy of the week has nothing to do with how it’s used or even how it works. From the outside, it’s kind of comically petty: One famous scientist wrote an article that downplays the work of another famous scientist, and this has gotten some people very mad.
Inside Crispr circles, it’s easier to see why the historical perspective published in the prestigious journal Cell, titled “Heroes of Crispr,” touched a nerve. For the past several years, the University of California, Berkeley and the Broad Institute (affiliated with MIT and Harvard) have been locked in a patent battle over Crispr, potentially worth billions. Researchers at both institutions claim they invented Crispr as a gene-editing tool first. So when Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad, writes a nearly 8,000-word history of the technique and devotes just two full paragraphs to the work of the Berkeley team, it does provoke hmms.
The patent aside—and this Cell piece will have no impact on the patent proceedings—this looks like a internecine spat among scientists. (Reminder: Scientists have egos!) So why should a non-scientist care? They shouldn’t, I thought at first, content to pop some popcorn and watch the angry tweets roll in. As the conversation expanded though, its importance came into focus: The episode heralds not only how science gets done today, but how the narrative of scientific discovery gets written.
Consider this: Very Important Scientist Eric Lander, who is not involved with Crispr himself, proposes to Very Important Journal Cell that he write a historical perspective on Crispr, which whether he means to or not, casts his own institution in an especially positive light. A decade ago, the resulting article might have provoked some angry whispers and emails in the lab and ended there. But in 2016, Michael Eisen, a Berkeley biologist who is not involved with Crispr, can go on Twitter to repeatedly and even vulgarly denounce Lander. And the comments started rolling in. Not only on Twitter, but also on newly created forums like PubPeer.
The traditional institutions, i.e. the scientific publishers, that could once write science’s history are now losing ground to the wide open Internet. Lots of people have, in fact, made the same observation about the growth of social media and new forums for critiquing scientific studies and new data. Publishers are no longer the only ones who get to the shape the conversation about science.
Cell, for its part, does not seem quite prepared for the firestorm around Lander’s history. The editors had also commissioned a technical review from Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley Crispr researcher at the center of all this, and decided to present Lander and Doudna’s pieces side by side in the latest issue to give both perspectives. “Fairness and balance was a concern from the start,” says Joseph Caputo, Cell’s media manager. The journal did not attach a conflict of interest statement to either piece.
Over the weekend, Doudna posted an online comment on Lander’s piece on Cell’s website that finally was approved Tuesday afternoon (a delay some found suspicious). “The description of my lab’s research and our interactions with other investigators is factually incorrect,” her comment read, “was not checked by the author and was not agreed to by me prior to publication.” Feng Zhang and George Church, both Crispr researchers affiliated with the Broad, confirmed they had fact checked sections of the piece about their own research for Lander—though Church said in an email to WIRED that he only got to fact check the manuscript the day before print and he has since sent a lengthy list of corrections to Lander. One of his corrections disputes Lander’s claim that Doudna needed his assistance to get genome editing to work in human cells.
Lander said in a statement that he had reached out to over a dozen scientists for their input, and Doudna was the only one who declined: “She confirmed the information about her personal background, but said she did not wish to comment in any way on historical statements about the development of Crispr technology.”
That makes sense, given that Berkeley and the Broad are fighting not only a patent war but also a PR war. And the fight is not entirely one-sided. Doudna herself begins a TED talk about Crispr by saying, “Along with my colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, I invented a new technology for editing genomes….” The author of a long (and Berkeley-centric) piece about Crispr in the New York Times Magazine last year teaches at Berkeley’s journalism school, but her bio on the piece seemed to obfuscate the connection.
And of course, social media and online comments are opening a new front in this PR war. As the patent proceeding winds its way through the court over the next two years, the fight to claim credit in the public eye will go on. Ironically, an article titled “Heroes of Crispr” reminds us that scientists are not infallible heroes but people—-people with egos, big or small, and occasionally fragile.