Elbert Branscomb on Jim Watson, Personality and Influence
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

This had to do with when we were initially, I think this was in the Bermuda meeting of, I think it was ‘97. We were essentially, all of the would-be genome centers, I may have the year wrong, my memory is bad here, were asserting what they were going to do the next year. And we had just [been] formed; that is, it had just been dictated that the three DOE genome centers would be smashed together, forced to work as one thing, funded as a unit, not separately, controlled by one ruthless aspirant czar and so on. So we had to come up with a figure for what we were going to do in our first year. And in the previous year these three genome centers together had only managed to submit into the public database about two million bases of human DNA and were tiny players against the already well established labs of Sulston’s and Waterston’s. And I even believe at the time that Whitehead was just leaping in.

And the German labs and so on were already doing substantially. And so we were obliged to go—this is a rather large tense situation with my boss, Art Patrinos, and Jim Watson and Francis and so on and all the heavies around this table. And you if you were really over from the wrong side of the tracks and, you know we had no standing and so on and so on. And I, in particular, had no standing. And so when it got to me, I had talked to my subordinates, to my brand new subordinates, right, about what they thought we could do. And I took the number that they gave me and cut it down to about forty percent. And I thought about it and sweated considerably about it, but at any rate the number we came up with is twenty million bases. Now no one had achieved—this is a brag in some way because we did achieve this, but no one had achieved even a three fold increase in output in a single year. And moreover we were, we were trying to reorganize and we had all sorts of reasons to think that we were going to fail. Good reasons! So when I came around and said twenty million bases. Jim rolled back in his chair and snorted and said to Andre Rosenthal, who was head of a major German sequencing effort, he just let this out this loud scornful stuff and said, “Andre, do you want to handle this or should I?” This was sort of an “ah, this is so ridiculous.” And so everyone was laughing, of course, you know, we were fully ridiculous. And Andre said something like, well, alright, I’ll explain. So anyway, he said he had looked at what these three labs had already done. He, you know, it was pretty pitiful, and he went through the reasons and so they all—but anyway, I got cold feet shortly thereafter. I went back to Ari Patrinos, or I tried to get back to Ari and I said [that] I think we should drop these goals because I think they maybe are too ambitious. But he would not even allow me to talk to him. He wouldn’t even allow his—and I said it’s already in the Federal Record that this is our goal. Live or die, do it or die! And he had, it turns out, had promised NIH that if we didn’t come within some significant percentage of these goals, he would take our money away, as a commitment. I suspected it at the time, but didn’t know it.

So I was talking with Ray Gesteland later about this and telling about this little dramatic story. And Ray, of course, knows Jim well. And he said, “Well, here’s what I think is true of Jim. If you succeed, he will let you know that he will speak well of that.” And so, in fact, that first year we made almost twenty one million. And it put us in the game and it pretty much killed us. But, nonetheless, we did make those goals. And then a year or two later at the end of one of these meetings, my colleagues and I were sitting up in the balcony outside of the cafeteria, and Jim came up and talked about a few things, you know, the weather and a few things. And he said, I don’t remember his words, but he said basically, you guys really did it, and you really did a good job. And then later after I had stepped down as director in favor of my subordinate of the time, Jim agreed to be on our scientific advisory board. And what Ray had said is that Jim will honor the truth, and he will honor the productivity. If you the job then he will honor you. And he has done that since many times and, you know, it’s really sweet in my mind.

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist and became a senior biomedical scientist in 1969. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program. In 1996 Dr. Branscomb was named the Director of the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. Since November of 2000, he has held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program. In this capacity, he assists the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs. In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.