Science News

Lab suspends Watson over racial comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A prominent New York scientific laboratory suspended Nobel Prize-winning DNA authority Dr. James Watson on Thursday night over racially insensitive comments he was quoted as making in an interview earlier in the week.

Britain's Dr. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA gene model, arrives at a dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of its finding at The Guildhall, London, April 23, 2003. A prominent New York scientific laboratory suspended the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist on Thursday night over racially insensitive comments he was quoted as making in a newspaper interview earlier in the week. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Watson made an appearance in London to promote his new book and apologized for his remarks, saying he did not mean to characterize Africans as genetically inferior, British media reported.

Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for his description of the double helix structure of DNA, was suspended as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York on Thursday.

Watson has been associated with the lab since 1948 but it joined a throng of other institutions and prominent researchers that said Watson’s comments were offensive and scientifically incorrect.

“This action follows the board’s public statement yesterday disagreeing with the comments attributed to Dr. Watson in the October 14, 2007, edition of The Sunday Times U.K,” the lab said in a statement.

In the interview Watson was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really.”

The Sunday Times did not publish the full interview with Watson, 79, who is known for his outspoken comments.

The newspaper also quoted Watson as saying people should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level.”

Watson said he was sorry for the comments in an appearance at the Royal Society in London.

“I am mortified about what has happened,” he told a group of scientists and journalists. “I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have.

“To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly.

“That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson, who shared his Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins, has long been on record as saying there is a genetic basis for intelligence -- something undisputed by other scientists. But experts deny there is any such thing as race on a genetic level.

Watson’s interview comments prompted an unusual outpouring from other scientists.

“The comments, which were attributed to Dr. James Watson earlier this week in the London Times, are wrong, from every point of view -- not the least of which is that they are completely inconsistent with the body of research literature in this area,” Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.

“Scientific prestige is never a substitute for knowledge. As scientists, we are outraged and saddened when science is used to perpetuate prejudice,” Zerhouni said.

Another group of Nobel laureates also expressed revulsion.

“The Federation of American Scientists is outraged by the noxious comments made by Dr. James Watson that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine on October 14th,” said the group, founded by Manhattan Project atomic physicists.

“At a time when the scientific community is feeling threatened by political forces seeking to undermine its credibility, it is tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonour on the profession,” added Federation of American Scientists President Henry Kelly.

London’s Science Museum cancelled a talk by Watson.