Eric Lander on Competition in Science
  Eric Lander     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Jun 2003

Ah, competitive. No, this is the most laid back kind of field you can imagine. I mean, of course, it's intensively competitive. I mean the human genome project, genomics, genetics, any interesting bit of science is competitive. The only parts of science that aren't competitive are the boring bits. Why is it competitive? Because it's interesting cause you want to know it first, because you're challenging yourself. There's no challenge to being the third person to figure something out cause all you have to do is look at the first two people who figured it out.

The difference is between positive competition and destructive competitive. The Celera thing was a destructive competitive. That was a competition where if one person wins the other person loses because the goal was to, in effect, shut down the Human Genome Project. Prevent that goal from happening, that everyone would have this information. The kind of competition within the human genome project was about strongly different views about the right thing to do, the right approach to take. The positive competition was, one, where no one took glee in being ahead of somebody else. You took glee in the result, you know-making the map or something, making a discovery, finding something. But it wasn't that you wanted to beat somebody else. It was that you wanted the thrill of-we stayed up late, I pace, I'm a pacer. We'd pace the streets of Cambridge the people at my genome center, talking and talking about how we can improve, how we can make things go faster, how we could squeeze things out. We agonized when things went wrong. None of us wanted to beat anybody cause we desperately wanted to make it happen. We did want to make it happen first, but because it sort of would mean that we had gotten it right and it was about a personal satisfaction of getting it right. It was a validation of having seen your way through to the solution. But it really wouldn't work without the competition. It wouldn't work without intensity and a passion.

Eric Lander earned his A.B. in mathematics from Princeton University (1978) and D.Phil. in mathematics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University (1981).

He first came to the Whitehead Institute as a Whitehead Fellow in 1986, while still an assistant professor of managerial economics at the Harvard Business School and is currently Director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research and Professor of Biology at MIT. As director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research, Dr Lander has been one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, contributing 30 percent of the total sequence of the human genome and developing and making freely available many of the key tools used in modern mammalian genomics.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and has been awarded the Beckman Prize for Lab Automation, the Chiron Prize for Biotechnology, and the Gairdner Award for his outstanding contribution to genomic research.

Lander has attended every human genome meeting at CSHL. At the request of Jim Watson, Lander gave his first lecture at the 1986 CSHL symposium on the Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens.