Doing a disservice to Future “Heroes of CRISPR”

Gary McDowell Jan 24, 2016

Two weeks before leaving Harvard Medical School, I went to a symposium on the recent breakthrough discovery of CRISPR. It was 2013. Le Cong, Luhan Yang, Patrick David Hsu (graduate students working with George Church and/or Feng Zhang) and Hui Yang, a postdoc with Rudolf Jaenisch, all gave talks on their most recent work. The room was packed with graduate students and postdocs; the talks were exciting and engaging; the excitement about science happening right around us in Boston was truly palpable. Indeed, the world was taking notice: Patrick David Hsu, at the age of 22, was named one of Forbe’s 30 scientists under 30 (by a panel including Jennifer Doudna). Hui Yang has been cited 950 times in one paper alone.


However, none of these heroes of CRISPR, junior scientists who did crucial work in uncovering the workings CRISPR-Cas9 system, are mentioned in Eric Lander’s perspective, “Heroes of CRISPR”, published recently in Cell. In fact, all of the “Heroes of CRISPR” are Principal Investigators in academia only, and not any other level or kind of investigator. The omission is not unusual (such work is usually described as being that of the Principal Investigator in scientific discussions) except for a point Lander attempts to make about young scientists:


It is instructive that so many of the Heroes of CRISPR did their seminal work near the very start of their scientific careers (including Mojica, Horvath, Marraffini, Charpentier, Vogel, and Zhang)—in several cases, before the age of 30. With youth often comes a willingness to take risks—on uncharted directions and seemingly obscure questions—and a drive to succeed. It’s an important reminder at a time that the median age for first grants from the NIH has crept up to 42.”


Through this very piece Eric Lander exemplifies the effects of hypercompetition caused by this rising grant age. The patent-, prize-, and PR-wrangling surrounding CRISPR is a microcosm of the pressures that many young scientists feel: a perceived need to spin your science out of proportion, to make an impact, get the high impact factor papers and so get the increasingly competitive grant funding.


Speaking from my perspective as a young scientist, this piece just reinforces and exemplifies so many of my disappointments with the way science is now. The work is biased to favor a particular narrative in a patent battle over a biological process. In this biased perspective the work inevitably draws comparisons between the sidelining of Doudna and Charpentier and the marginalization of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of the structure of DNA.


To write a history of CRISPR -- a true, unbiased history of CRISPR -- it would have been appropriate to fact-check thoroughly, even have multiple authorships, on this piece. Indeed, part of the history of CRISPR itself will no doubt be the patent battle and the implications that has for future scientific endeavors. Cell has lost a great opportunity produce a clear, collaborative history of the origins of CRISPR. Lander and Cell must have known that this piece would be recognized by the scientific community as a revisionist “Whig history”, and that makes it all the more astounding that a leading scientist would write it, and that a high-impact factor journal would publish it. Or perhaps I am just a science romantic, and this truly is a sign of the scientific times.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Jessica Polka for helpful comments and critiques.

Conflict of Interest Statement: This piece is written in a personal capacity and is my own opinion. However, I am involved with the Future of Research organization which has an interest in addressing issues facing young scientists.