James Watson Stripped Of Honorary Titles Over Racial Comments

James Watson in happier times. National Cancer Institute/Public Domain

Other significant scientists, while disagreeing with Watson's statements, have previously defended his legal right to make them, and argued institutions such as Cold Spring should continue to give him a platform to propound them.

No one in science disputes the significance of the discovery to which Watson's name will forever be attached. Identifying the structure of DNA was arguably the most important scientific achievement of the 20th century, unleashing as it did all the genetic analysis and modification of genes that followed.

There's more debate on Watson's share of the credit. Modern science is a collaborative effort, and often only a few names get all the public credit for group efforts. In the case of DNA, it is Watson and his collaborator Francis Crick who have received the accolades, but it's unlikely they would have solved the problem without Franklin's work. Moreover, if Watson had bothered to listen to what Franklin had to say in a lecture he attended, instead of obsessing on her gender and appearance, it's likely the structure of DNA would have been solved more than a year earlier.

Unfortunately, a culture of lionizing superstars allows prominent figures to harm the careers of others. If you consider science to be mainly the work of a few geniuses, you might be willing to overlook their flaws. However, those who believe most of the millions of scientific papers published each year advance human knowledge, and think the cumulative contribution of their many little-known authors outweighs that of the big names, are much more concerned about the environment the best-known figures make for others.

We'll never know what the female and non-white scientists whose careers Watson obstructed might have achieved but in future, their younger counterparts may get a chance to show.

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