Friday, February 18, 2022

Eric Lander sounds like not a very nice boss

I've never met Eric Lander. He's clearly a brilliant man, but he doesn't seem like a great leader of White House staffers. Via Stat News: 

...Three staffers described being made to feel like schoolchildren: In moments of frustration, they said, Lander would pointedly ask aides where they attended graduate school, or whether they’d authored academic papers. Once, three aides recalled, he left a small group of female staffers shaken after he slammed his fists on a table in an apparent fit of rage...

...Under Lander, meetings were often characterized by his own references to his illustrious academic career at MIT, Harvard, and the Broad Institute, and his reluctance to seek input from the many Ph.D.s or other experts he supervised, including those who had expertise beyond his own background in math, life sciences, and genomics. (OSTP includes several divisions that cover a vast array of topics, like climate and the environment, national security, energy, and even a small unit devoted to federal computer systems and information technology.)

I'll be honest and say that it's never been particularly clear to me why OSTP is an important office within the White House, but hey, it's a White House appointed, Senate confirmed position for a scientist, so gee, I guess it's important to science/scientists. 

It's within this context that I'm also a bit flummoxed to understand why he found himself in situations where he was getting mad at people, especially folks that he had hired. (What exactly was he mad about?) It will be interesting to better understand what was going on in this office, and eventually someone will tell the whole story. 


  1. I worked at a CDMO fresh out of grad school and about 1-2 months after starting there, my micromanaging boss was interrupting my lunch asking why this one little task was not completed. He then started slamming his fists on the table while telling me it needed to be done before I go home that night (his approach was often trying to "hold my hand" through every little task and telling me it needed to be done before lunch or before end of the day). I fail to understand how humans don't have basic communication skills let alone ridiculous rage fits. It's not helpful in any situation.

  2. This is why science doesn't attract as many of the best minds any more. Most of that cohort know that they don't need to put up with such crap and can make a much better salary doing something else with much less abuse.

    1. Amen to that! The toxic environment of academia drives a lot of bright people away. It also taught me a lot of bad things that I needed to un-learn in order to work with other people in industry / the real world.

    2. I was highly "abused" mentally/emotionally in grad school and from that, I had borderline crippling depression for YEARS during and after. Any time I think of that city where my grad school is, I kind of have a brief period of anxiety wash over me and I have to remind myself that I survived and am doing much better. But the non chemistry friends I made still live there and I refuse to visit them because of the trauma experienced. I don't ever think I can go back there, at least not in the next decade or more, but maybe one day when I don't feel anxious when I think of that city, I may be ready to go back there.

    3. I feel the exact same way about my grad school location. Several years ago, my employer at the time had some interaction with a startup company located there, and I was terrified of the possibility of being asked to travel there on business. Last thing I need is to have some kind of a PTSD freakout while on a business trip. Fortunately, the situation never came up.

  3. I tell this to my friends and family all the time. Being brilliant and accomplished is in no way indicative of being a good manager. I don't understand why the PhD degree is given preference towards a management track, considering most of the endeavor to earn the degree is solitary in nature and doesn't rely on other scientists reporting to you.

  4. I completely agree with Pootie Tang.

    I think part of the problem is that in so many places, the best or only way to move up in one's career is to go into management. Being a manager requires a totally different skill set. But it can't be reduced to skills - certain personalities undoubtedly would find it easier and quicker to adapt than others.

    If I'm playing armchair psychologist, it seems that anyone who hasn't recognized and dealt with trust issues, attachment issues, or is high in neuroticism, is going to have a rough go at being a manager. Some people aren't even self-aware enough to recognize there's growth to be done.

  5. CJ, one of the struggles for appointed leaders in government is exactly that they did *not* hire their reports. Appointees lead civil service people--who generally were there before the appointee and will be there after the appointee is gone (generally two presidential terms at the outside). This lets the civil servants burrow into an issue in ways the appointee cannot; it gives them a history of reporting to someone who may have done things very differently; and it gives them the view that they can ride out the appointee's tenure.

    All of this means that there is *more* importance on finding appointees with the array of skills that Lander seems to have been so sorely short of.

  6. Interestingly, I had a friend who was a grad student for Eric Lander and I saw him in the Lander lab (!) My friend gave me a very brief idea of his Eric's personality--spontaneous and passionate---but never mention any kind of abuse.

    Why do academic's get angry at new hires? Because a lot of academics think you are there to make them famous and if they sense you are not as smart as they first thought, they think you will not help them become famous, and they get angry at you. I think that, in part, happened to me in my last post-doc position. At my relatively advanced age I now see the great problem with humanity is ego. Putin and Lander and my last boss, for example, are not making the world a better place.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20