Watson's Media Ties Questioned

Former Colleagues Calls DNA pioneer caught in race scandal ‘damaged goods’

James D. Watson, the world-famous former Harvard researcher who recently made and then apologized for comments suggesting a link between race and intelligence, has seen his book tour cancelled and his position as chancellor of a prominent research laboratory suspended.

But the controversial scientist who helped discover DNA still holds his position on the board of the Seed Media Group, which runs a popular science magazine and online media outlet.

Aside from its monthly magazine, the group operates over 60 blogs which receive over 1.5 million visits each month, according to company statistics. Watson authored a piece on memory in the April/May 2006 issue of Seed Magazine and is currently identified as an adviser and board member on Seed Media’s Web site.

“It seems to me a no-brainer” for Seed Media to remove Watson as an adviser, said Lecturer on Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Andrew Berry, who wrote a 2003 book about DNA with Watson.

“Watson is someone, whether he believed in his comments or not, who is damaged goods,” Barry said.

That view trickled through the scientific last week after The Times of London published comments by Watson in which he said of blacks, “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

After a public outcry, Watson said in a statement that he was surprised by what he was quoted as saying and that “there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson has since stayed out of the public eye, and Seed Magazine representatives declined to comment for this story.

Howard C. Berg, the Smith professor of physics and a friend and colleague of Watson for over 40 years, said he had no personal knowledge of Seed Media Group.

But he said that Watson would not associate himself with an organization on a superficial level.

“If he didn’t participate directly in the work in a significant way, he wouldn’t attach his name to it,” Berg said of Watson. “In that regard, he’s very ethical.”

Robert A. Lue, the executive director of undergraduate education in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, called for Watson to speak out further.

“A lot depends on what Jim Watson does next,” Lue said. “This is an opportunity for him to address the issue directly. One could imagine not just an apology, but a further, in-depth, correction.”

Professors have taken various tacks in responding to Watson’s remarks.

“I’m not sure how to raise them and in what context. I don’t want to detract from the science,” said Lue, who co-teaches the introductory life science course.

Those who know Watson more intimately have taken a more direct approach. Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick, a onetime colleague of Watson and co-author with the Nobel Laureate of the textbook “Molecular Biology of the Gene,” said in his molecular and cellular biology lecture course on Friday morning that he was personally outraged by Watson’s comments and did not believe them to be accurate.

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.edu.