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Watson Retires From Cold Spring Harbor Lab

25 October 2007 (All day)
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O. Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Leaving.
"The passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue," Watson wrote in a statement.

Ten days after sparking controversy with comments on race and intelligence, James Watson today announced that he is retiring as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Long Island, New York. The decision appeared to be the result of negotiations between Watson and the lab's Board of Trustees, which suspended him from the chancellor's post last week. The 79-year-old Nobelist, who has led the lab in various capacities for nearly 40 years, will continue to live on the CSHL campus.

Watson was widely condemned after The Sunday Times quoted him on 14 October as saying that 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." Watson subsequently apologized, but the damage had been done. London’s Science Museum canceled a talk he was supposed to give on 19 October; CSHL's board issued a public statement rejecting Watson's remarks and suspended him.

Watson cut short his tour of the United Kingdom, where he was traveling to promote his new book Avoid Boring People, and returned to Cold Spring Harbor to deal with the fallout. "I'm going home to try to save my job," British press reports quoted him as saying before his departure. Board members were engaged in negotiations about his fate, a trustee told ScienceNOW.

This morning, both Watson and the board issued statements announcing his retirement. "Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue," Watson said in an e-mail received by several media outlets, including ScienceNOW. "The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired."

In its own announcement, the lab made no reference to those circumstances. "Jim Watson created a research environment that is unparalleled in the world of science," CSHL President Bruce Stillman said in the statement. "We all owe Jim and his wife Liz a great deal of gratitude for devoting much of his professional career and all of their married life to building up Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory." The statement also quotes CSHL board chair Eduardo Mestre as saying that "the Board respects [Watson's] decision to retire at this point in his career."

In his statement, Watson thanks the board for allowing him to "remain along my beloved Bungtown Road"--a reference to his residence on the lab’s idyllic campus. And in what appears to be a curious, roundabout apology for his remarks, he dwells on the "moral values" inherited from his parents. "To my great advantage, their lives were guided by a faith in reason; an honest application of its messages; and for social justice, especially the need for those on top to help care for the less fortunate. As an educator, I have always striven to see that the fruits of the American Dream are available to all."

Watson's admirers say the controversy will do little to diminish his accomplishments. Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, noted in a statement that Watson arranged for the U.S. Human Genome Project to study ethical, legal, and social issues: "Jim Watson will be remembered as a unique and iconic scientist of the 20th century."

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