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James Watson disses today's high school teachers

Last night in a room with a double helix woven in the carpet, the cantankerous geneticist James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and provocateur—made clear his opinion of today's high school teachers: They're not too bright.

Watson, 80, was part of a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences that followed a screening of a new documentary called Naturally Obsessed, The Making of a Scientist. The film is about the trials and tribulations of graduate students in biochemist Lawrence Shapiro's x-ray crystallography laboratory at Columbia University in New York City. (We live-Twittered the event, so click here for our reports and real-time reactions from our followers.)

In the documentary, the unlikely protagonist is Robert Townley, a bushy-haired, rock-climbing, college dropout who eventually got his degree after three false starts. Townley is an exile from another Columbia lab, and is invited by Shapiro to join his team to help decipher the structure of AMP activated protein kinase – a molecular switch that has implications for the treatment of diabetes and obesity.

By the time Townley succeeds in the task, publishes a paper about it in Science and uncorks a bottle of champagne after his dissertation defense, two other members of his cohort have jumped ship and taken industry jobs.

The highlight of the evening for many of the young scientists present was undoubtedly a chance to gain a bit of wisdom from Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for co-discovering DNA.* Watson was recruited for the panel because of his lofty place in the annals of crystallography and his interest in education. But a cloud still hangs over the geneticist, who retired from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Long Island two years ago after being slammed for claiming that Africans were intellectually inferior to whites. The panel also featured Toni Hoover, an African-American clinical psychologist who heads Pfizer's Groton/New London laboratories, and Andrey Pisarev, a Russia-born biologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

Watson opened the discussion on a positive note, saying that he enjoyed the film. He went on to denounce failed Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona as  "nuts" and "dumb" for failing to see the importance of science, and then called for the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to be doubled, which drew cheers from the room full of scientists. 

He noted that a lack of money in the sciences meant that people had to be nice to each other, because they need to grovel for the limited research dollars. And, according to Watson, there's nothing worse than forcing young, ambitious scientists to be nice. "Christian values don't make any sense," he said, explaining that young people should be selfish and aim for success.

That's one reason he likes Russians, he said, like biologist Andrey Pisarev, and would hire them in a heartbeat – presumably because they are more worried about surviving than about being nice. Indeed, Watson's prescription for maintaining U.S. dominance in science includes postponing tenure for young scientists and allowing only one in five PhDs to stay in academics – and forcing the remaining grads to spread out and take up other occupations.

"It shouldn't be a failure to go into industry," he says, failing to note that Pfizer's Hoover, who was seated next to him, has had a successful career in "industry, " where she has overseen the development of drugs for Alzheimer's, depression, oncology, and metabolic diseases.

But Watson said he believes there is a larger hole in the U.S. educational system that is sapping our lead in science.  "Part of the problem is too many of our teachers are dumb," he said, balking that "Teachers' unions are corrupt." He said that the relatively low pay educators receive has prompted smart people to flee teaching for other careers— although he made a point of noting that he does not support giving them raises. Teachers like the "bright woman that taught me Latin are nowhere near our schools [now]," he crowed.

Watson continued to insist that educators are "not as bright" as they once were, before moderator and former TV reporter Garrick Utley politely cut him off.  Despite being silenced, Watson continued to mutter snippily, prompting the audience to roar with laughter.

After the panel discussion, Hoover told Scientific American.com that despite the minor tiff, she was largely entertained by Watson and pleased to be in his presence, "He's very provocative," she said, "and that helps to create new ways of thinking."  But she believes he's dead wrong when it comes to his views on teachers.  "We do have great teachers out there," she said.   "My father was a teacher and an assistant principal in New Orleans. I know how hard it is to be a teacher."

*Note (2/27/09): James Watson was originally identified in this blog as the discoverer of DNA. He is the co-discoverer who, along with Francis Crick, identified the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.

Image: Watson at a previous event, courtesy of Juvetson via Flickr

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