Murder at the Lasker Awards

It's tough to please an elite crowd of scientists, financiers, and other luminaries.

By | October 10, 2005

It's tough to please an elite crowd of scientists, financiers, and other luminaries. But that's just what the organizers of the annual Lasker Award luncheon need to do year after year, in addition to handing out the honors that are often referred to as the American Nobel Prizes. Previous themes have been lofty. In 2001, the event did a great job making a case for keeping science a top priority in the United States just a few weeks after the September 11 terror attacks. In 2003, they built a message of hope when winner Christopher Reeve – a.k.a. Superman – introduced.

How do you follow up on that? This year, the theme was scientific patriotism, but the event also featured dead chefs and a bad joke saved since the Clinton presidency. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) opened the event with a keynote address in which she called for America to boost its science know-how – with outside help. Poised before a backdrop of British, Canadian, and US flags representing the winners' nationalities, Hutchinson, chair of the Senate's Science and Space Subcommittee, warned that the United States risked falling behind in basic science. Countries such as China and India are devoting increased resources to hard science, she said. "Scientists who used to flock to the US [are] finding tempting offers at home," she said.

To improve the state of US science, Hutchinson suggested a sort of reverse-reverse brain drain to lure foreign nationals back to the country, a doubling of the National Science Foundation budget, and directing America's focus to physics, chemistry, and biology. "We are America, we can do it, and we will be the best," was her stirring finish. "I promise you that."

As if to reinforce the promise of progress shouldered by non-American brains, Hutchinson's talk was followed by the presentation of research awards to two Canadians and two Englishmen. Tom Stossel, a Harvard Medical School professor, introduced the Canadians, Ernest McCulloch and James Till, by suggesting a metaphor for their work on stem cells that somehow involved the murder of the hotel's chefs by radiation, then restoring the meal by recruiting replacement chefs from the Sherry Netherlander down the street. The metaphor left the audience laughing while trying to picture how a handful of white-hatted culinary masters could physically turn themselves into a few hundred blue cheese and walnut salads, plates of Chilean sea bass with small roasted potatoes, and pastries layered with strawberries and custard. (Hutchinson had rooted for adult stem cell research while deftly avoiding mention of the embryonic variety, which she has countered social conservatives to support.)

Joseph Goldstein, a previous Lasker winner and current chair of the selection jury, introduced the clinical award winners with no mention of the fact that the work of Sir Edwin Southern and Sir Alec Jeffreys, while incredibly influential, is not actually clinical in nature. Goldstein then began his stand-up routine with a line referring to the use of DNA fingerprinting in the Monica Lewinsky case as a "seminal event." The seven-years-too-old joke was met with a collective murmur of "how did Leno miss that one?"

There was news, too: Lasker Foundation officials announced that the DeBakey Medical Foundation will be donating $10 million to the Lasker Foundation, an amount that will be matched by an anonymous gift. The namesake of the foundation is of course the pioneering heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, a Lasker Award winner who chaired the selection committee for three decades. There are no details on what the funds will be used for, but the Foundation plans an announcement for later in the year.

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