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In 2014 biologist Mike Snyder published 42 papers. Some of his contributions to those papers were collaborative, but many describe experiments performed in his lab. To make sense of the number 42, one might naïvely assume that Snyder dedicated 8 days and 17 hours (on average) to each paper. That time would include the hours (days?) needed to conceive of ideas, setup and perform experiments, analyze data and write text. It’s not much time, yet even so it is probably an upper bound. This is because Snyder performed the work that resulted in the 42 papers in his spare time. As the chair of the genetics department at Stanford, an administrative position carrying many responsibilities, he was burdened with numerous inter- and intra- and extra- departmental meetings, and as an internationally renowned figure in genomics he was surely called upon to assist in numerous reviews of grants and papers, to deliver invited talks at conferences, and to serve on numerous national and international panels and committees. Moreover, as a “principal investigator” (PI), Snyder was certainly tasked with writing reports about the funding he receives, and to spend time applying for future funding. So how does someone write 42 papers in a year?
Snyder manages 36 postdocs, 13 research assistants, 11 research scientists, 9 visiting scientists, and 8 graduate students. One might imagine that each of the graduate students supervises four postdocs, so that the students/postdocs operate under a structure that enables independent work to proceed in the lab with only occasional supervision and input from the PI. This so-called “PI model” for biology arguably makes sense. The focus of experienced investigators on supervision allows them to provide crucial input gained from years of experience on projects that require not only creative insight, but also large amounts of tedious rote work. Modern biology is also fraught with interdisciplinary challenges, and large groups benefit from the diversity of their members. For these reasons biology papers nowadays tend to have large numbers of authors.
It is those authors, the unsung heroes of science, that are the “cast” in Eric Lander’s recent perspective on “The Heroes of CRISPR” where he writes that
“the narrative underscores that scientific breakthroughs are rarely eureka moments. They are typically ensemble acts, played out over a decade or more, in which the cast becomes part of something greater than what any one of them could do alone.”
All of the research papers referenced in the Lander perspective have multiple authors, on average about 7, and going up to 20. When discussing papers such as this, it is therefore customary to refer to “the PI and colleagues…” in lieu of crediting all individual authors. Indeed, this phrase appears throughout Lander’s perspective, where he writes “Moineau and colleagues..”, “Siksnys and colleagues..”, etc. It is understood that this means that the PIs guided projects and provided key insights, yet left most of the work to the first author(s) who were in turn aided by others.
There is a more cynical view of the PI model, namely that by running large labs PIs are able to benefit from a scientific roulette of their own making. PIs can claim credit for successes while blaming underlings for failures. Even one success can fund numerous failures, and so the wheel spins faster and faster…the PI always wins. Of course the mad rush to win leads to an overall deterioration of quality. For example, it appears that even the Lander perspective was written in haste (Lander may not be as prolific as Snyder but according to Thomson Reuters he did publish 21 “hot” papers in 2015, placing him fourth on the list of the world’s most influential scientific minds, only a few paces behind winner Stacey Gabriel). The result is what appears to be a fairly significant typo in Figure 2 of his perspective, which shows the geography of the CRISPR story. The circle labeled “9” should be colored in blue like circle “10”, because that color represents “the final step of biological engineering to enable genome editing”. The Jinek et al. 2012 paper of circle “9” clearly states that “We further show that the Cas9 endonuclease can be programmed with guide RNA engineered as a single transcript to target and cleave any dsDNA sequence of interest”. Moreover the Jinek et al. 2013 paper described editing in mammalian cells but was submitted in 2012 (the dates in Lander’s figure are by submission), so circle “9” should also be labeled with a “10” for “Genome editing in mammalian cells”. In other words, the figure should have looked like this:
Lander acknowledges the reality of the PI model in the opening of his perspective, where he writes that “the Perspective describes an inspiring ensemble of a dozen or so scientists who—with their collaborators and other contributors whose stories are not elaborated here—discovered the CRISPR system, unraveled its molecular mechanisms, and repurposed it as a powerful tool for biological research and biomedicine. Together, they are the Heroes of CRISPR.”
But in choosing to highlight a “dozen or so” scientists, almost all of whom are established PIs at this point, Lander unfairly trivializes the contributions of dozens of graduate students and postdocs who may have made many of the discoveries he discusses, may have developed the key insights, and almost certainly did most of the work. For example, one of the papers mentioned in the Lander perspective is
F. Zhang*, L. Cong*, S. Lodato, S. Kosuri, G.M. Church and P. Arlotta, Efficient construction of sequence-specific TAL effectors for modulating mammalian transcription, 2011
I’ve placed a * next to the names of F. Zhang and L. Cong as is customary to do when “authors contributed equally to this work” (a quote from their paper). Yet in his perspective Lander writes that “when TALEs were deciphered, Zhang, with his collaborators Paola Arlotta and George Church…successfully repurposed them for mammals”. The omission of Cong is surprising not only because his contribution to the TALE work was equal to that of Zhang, but because he is the same Cong that is first author of Cong et al. 2013 that Lander lauds for its number of citations (Le Cong is a former graduate student of Zhang, and is now a postdoc at the Broad Institute). Another person who is absent from Lander’s perspective, yet was first author on two of the key papers mentioned is Martin Jinek. He and Charpentier’s postdoc Krzysztof Chylinski were deemed fundamental to the CRISPR story elsewhere.
A proper narrative of the history of CRISPR would include stories primarily about the graduate students and postdocs who did the heavy lifting. Still, one might imagine giving Lander the benefit of the doubt; perhaps it was simply not possible to exhaustively describe all the individuals who contributed to the 20 year CRISPR story. Maybe Lander’s intent was to draw readers into his piece by including interesting backstories in the style of the New Yorker. Mentions of cognac, choucroute garnie and Saddam Hussein certainly added spice to what would otherwise be just a litany of dates. Yet if that is the case, why are the backstories of the only two women mentioned in Lander’s perspective presented as so so so boring? The entirety of what he has to say about them is “Charpentier had earned her Ph.D in microbiology from Pasteur Institute in 1995” and “Doudna had received her Ph.D. at Harvard” (those who are interested in Charpentier and Doudna’s fascinating CRISPR story will have to forgo the journal Cell and read about The CRISPR Quandary in the New York Times). A possible answer to my question is provided here.
Lander concludes his perspective by writing that “the [CRISPR] narrative…is a wonderful lesson for a young person contemplating a life in science”. That may be true of the CRISPR narrative, but the lesson of his narrative is that young persons should not count on leaders in their field to recognize their work.
COI statement: Eric Lander is my former (informal) Ph.D. advisor. Jennifer Doudna is a current colleague and collaborator.