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Watson retires after race flap

Oct. 25, 2007
Special to World Science  

No­bel Prize win­ning ge­net­i­cist James D. Wat­son re­tired to­day as chan­cel­lor of the Cold Spring Har­bor Lab­o­r­a­to­ry in New York af­ter en­dur­ing an av­a­lanche of crit­i­cism for com­ments about race.

Wat­son had been sus­pended from his po­si­tion at Cold Spring Har­bor amid the flap, which started when Lon­don’s Sun­day Times of Oct. 14 quot­ed him say­ing that Africans are less in­tel­li­gent than Eu­ro­peans.

“Closer now to 80 than 79, the pass­ing on of my re­main­ing ves­tiges of lead­er­ship is more than over­due,” he said in a state­ment an­nounc­ing his re­signa­t­ion. “The cir­cum­stances in which this trans­fer is oc­cur­ring, how­ev­er, are not those which I could ev­er have an­ti­cipated or de­sired.” Wat­son had al­so apol­o­gized last week, though with­out clear­ly dis­avow­ing the sub­stance of his al­leged re­marks.

The lab­o­r­a­to­ry is­sued its own state­ment in the wake of the re­signa­t­ion, say­ing it “re­spects” the de­ci­sion and prais­ing Wat­son for his past work. It did not men­tion the race con­tro­ver­sy.

Crit­ics said Wat­son’s com­ments were rac­ist and ig­no­rant, but sup­port­ers have said his was a le­git­i­mate opin­ion with a ba­sis in sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies. Early re­sults of an un­sci­en­tif­ic World Sci­ence poll sug­gest a large ma­jor­ity of re­spon­dents, which in­clud­ed sci­en­tists, sup­ported his free­dom to air his views with­out ret­ri­bu­tion. Even more ex­pressed fear that his trou­bles will make it hard­er for re­search­ers to speak their minds in times ahead.

Wat­son shared a No­bel in 1962 for co-discovering the struc­ture of DNA.


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Nobel Prize winning geneticist James D. Watson retired today as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York after enduring an avalanche of criticism for comments about race. Watson had been suspended from his position at Cold Spring Harbor amid the flap, which started when London’s Sunday Times of Oct. 14 quoted him saying that Africans are less intelligent than Europeans. “Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue,” he said in a statement announcing his resignation. “The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.” Watson had also apologized last week, although without specifically disavowing the substance of his alleged remarks. The laboratory issued its own statement in the wake of the resignation, saying it “respects” the decision and praising Watson for his past work. It did not mention the race controversy. Critics said Watson’s comments were racist and ignorant, but supporters have said his was a legitimate opinion with a basis in scientific studies. Early results of an unscientific World Science poll suggested the great majority of respondents, which included scientists, supported his freedom to air his views without retribution. Watson shared a Nobel in 1962 for co-discovering the structure of DNA.