Eric Lander (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)

“Funny tensions in science.” That’s a phrase from the lips of Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

He was in Washington earlier this week to appear at the Aspen Institute in conversation with journalist/biographer Walter Isaacson, and inevitably the talk turned to CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technique, and to Lander’s controversial essay earlier this year in the journal Cell, “The Heroes of CRISPR.” The scientific community's reaction highlighted the aforementioned funny tensions; as my colleague Carolyn Johnson reported, Lander's review of the history of CRISPR set off an epic social-media kerfuffle.

In the essay, Lander distributed credit widely for the CRISPR discovery – which rankled some parties who thought they deserved more attention, or felt that Lander had overemphasized the contribution of one of his Broad Institute colleagues. He described CRISPR as the result of many converging innovations, rather than as something that erupted in a classic Eureka! moment. (In this sense, CRISPR is like the computer; as my friend Walter's book "The Innovators" points out, no single person invented the computer, and a long list of people deserve credit, going back to the era of Ada Lovelace in the 19th century.)

“My intention is not to diminish anybody,” Lander said this week. He specifically mentioned Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California at Berkeley, whom he described as “a spectacular scientist.” Doudna was among the CRISPR heroes who didn't care for his essay. Also apparently rankled were some hard-working graduate students, laboring anonymously in the labs of tenured scientists. Other critics, who pointed out that Lander is not a disinterested spectator when it comes to CRISPR, felt that the journal should have noted a conflict of interest since the Broad Institute has been in a brutal and protracted patent fight with Berkeley involving CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing methods. [Correction: The journal Cell did not require a disclosure because Lander himself has no personal financial interests in the CRISPR-related patents under dispute; the Broad has institutional interests. Contrary to what I originally posted here, Lander's name is on some unrelated patent applications, according to a Broad spokesperson.]

Lander said Monday of CRISPR, “I think there’s about a dozen people who deserve tremendous credit.” He added, “But in science we don’t have many ways to recognize a dozen people.”

The Nobel Prize has an unfortunate “rule of three.” No more than three people can be Nobeled for a single invention. Also, you can’t be dead. Lander said that Alfred Nobel himself said the prize should go to the one person who in the previous year had done the most to benefit mankind. Through legal wrangling after his death, the Swedish Academy developed that numerical rule.

“This creates all sorts of funny tensions in science. The right number might be five,” Lander said.

He also addressed the larger question of how CRISPR should be applied and how scientists might restrict its use. Lander was among those who organized a big confab in Washington in December, with scientists from Europe and China as well as North America, at which everyone agreed to put limits on the use of CRISPR in human germ-line research. Lander’s argument, which he reiterated at the Aspen Institute, is that we don’t understand the genome well enough to be confident that the changes we make will be salutary in the long run.

“We’re crummy at it,” he said. “We are terrible predictors of the consequences of the changes we make.”

Okay, so what about trying to get rid of Zika by genetically modifying the mosquitoes that carry it?

He didn’t oppose the idea, but he asked the question:  “If I subtract a species from an ecosystem, are there consequences?”

It was, in sum, a call for scientific modesty.

(Good luck with that.)

Further Reading:

In science, everyone doesn't get a trophy

Control of CRISPR is in dispute

A social media war just erupted over the biotech innovation of the century