Leadership in a Media Age

The Royal Society of Arts and the Reuters Institute co-hosted the famed American genetecist Craig Venter at the RSA's headquarters in London on October 24. Venter was giving one in an occasional RSA series on "Leadership in a media age". The session was chaired by Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre - who wrote this account of it:

I still have no idea whether it was a complete coincidence that two of the world's best known US genetic scientists held their London book launches in the same week but not surprisingly journalists turned to one of them, Craig Venter, for comment when his old rival, Nobel prize winner James Watson flew into a media storm over his controversial comments on race and IQ.

Venter was less than sympathetic, pointing out that Watson had been making unacceptable statements about race, women and disability for many years but the media had turned a blind eye because of his status as the man who discovered DNA and gave us the double helix. This lack of empathy for a fellow scientist at the heart of a media row becomes less surprising when you read Venter's book. His allegation that in the late 1990s Watson threatened the then editor of Nature with a boycott by US genome scientists if they published Venter's research shows that Watson hasn’t always been averse to a bit of censorship of his own.

Yet as I read Venter's book and chaired him at two encounters with the media, I couldn't help feeling that what now unites these two giants of the genetic world is that they have both suffered at the hands of the media. Anyone who came to hear Craig Venter speak about the media at the Reuters Institute/RSA lecture will know that he believes he has thrived in spite of the media and not because of it. Venter accuses the media – especially the UK media – of a series of crimes against science; dumbing down, sensationalising, simplifying and polarising - a familiar list to those of us who sit on the front line between scientists and the media. And for him it was personal. When I suggested Venter to John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute for this lecture, I was reprimanded by his publicist for my shorthand description of him as the 'evil' one who had sequenced the human genome for profit rather than the 'saintly' John Sulston who had done it for the public good.

Yet for many that was exactly the take-home message from the media's coverage of the race to map the human genome – a race in which Craig Venter’s company Celera Genomics announced that it would patent certain genes and sell the information to drugs companies while the publically funded team promised to make the entire sequence widely available to the scientific community. Several years on, most people outside of science still recognise Venter more from the media’s portrayal of his leading part in that titanic battle than for his scientific breakthroughs.

Whether Venter's motives are entirely pure is  up for debate and the book certainly shows that he's is ruthlessly ambitious, desperate to be 'first' and prepared to compromise on his stated commitment to making his findings available in order to keep his financial backers on side. However many of the publically funded scientists who take issue with Craig Venter’s modus operandi privately concede that the media unfairly turned him into the poster boy for the commercialisation of science. Venter was presented as the unacceptable face of capitalism in science by a media searching for a simple tale of heroes and villains. Of course, as in all things, the truth is more complicated than that.

In the book, Venter argues that he opted for private funding for his genome research because he was unable and unwilling to play the political and waiting games needed to get public funds; "my critics had dwelled on how I was only in research for the money. They got it backwards: I was interested in money only to have the freedom to do my research.