Controversy over naming of UCC building after scientist who claimed black people 'less intelligent' than white

Members of university's governing board oppose decision to name building after Nobel laureate James Watson

ucc, james watson

UCC lecturers and students hold signs at the Watson Building in UCC | Photo: Karl Kitching

UCC students and staff have criticised the decision to name a new campus building after controversial scientist James Watson.

Dr Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, opened the building at a ceremony in the university on Wednesday.

Two elected members of UCC’s governing board criticised the move in a joint statement, saying they wished to “formally disassociate” themselves from the decision.

“Professor Watson is an eminent scientist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, with Professor Francis Crick, for describing the double-helix structure of DNA.

“However, he has been responsible for unfounded, unscientific and inaccurate statements of a racist and misogynistic nature,” Dr Angela Flynn and Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí said.

“In the circumstances, we do not believe that it is appropriate to honour Professor Watson by naming a building after him.

“Moreover, we believe that such a decision is grossly disrespectful, in particular,  to women and ethnic minority members of staff and the student community.”

The naming of the building, which forms part of UCC’s Brookfield medical campus, also drew ire from student representatives.

Irish heritage

The head of UCC Students’ Union, Aidan Coffey, said in a letter to the university’s president that the decision seemed to have been made by “a relatively small management group, with little consultation or openness”.

“It is our opinion that a character who professed views regarding race, gender and sexuality so out of keeping with the standards and expectations of us in the university should not be recognised with one of the highest honours that this institution can confer,” he said.

“Of course, exceptional scientific records and achievements should be celebrated and acknowledged in their own right and in their own sphere.

“The awarding of a Nobel prize should be adjudicated against the requisite scientific standard.

"We in UCC should set different standards for our own honours, and we have the freedom and indeed the responsibility to decide the point at which racial prejudice overshadows scientific prowess ...

“Each and every building on our fine campus should reflect and echo an ethos of respect to which each and every student, staff member and visitor should aspire to. The naming of this building falls far short of this.”

UCC said in a statement that Dr Watson is a scientist of world renown who is responsible for “one of the most profound discoveries” of the 20th century.

A spokesperson for the university said: “In naming this facility after [him], we are building on his contribution to science and recognising his strong association with UCC as an honorary doctorate alumnus and scientific advisor to many UCC researchers.

“Dr Watson’s grandmother was from Co Tipperary and he is proud of his Irish ancestry - his genome sequencing confirmed his dominant Irish genes.

“The decision to name the building was made within the recognised university processes and the president informed governing body of this decision.”

Dr Watson sparked outrage in 2007 when he claimed black people are genetically inferior to white.

In a much-criticised newspaper interview, the American academic was quoted as saying he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really".

Dr Watson added that while he hoped races could be equal in intelligence, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

The remarks led to his retirement as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

They were not his first brush with controversy, however. In 2003, he said of genetic engineering: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”