President-elect Joe Biden has chosen a research policy maven—and familiar face—to be both his science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Eric Lander, 63, is president and founding director of the Broad Institute, which is jointly run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A mathematician turned molecular biologist, Lander was also co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for 8 years under former President Barack Obama, where he worked closely with Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, and interacted with Biden.
“Eric is a fabulous choice, and he will make a terrific science adviser,” predicts Holdren, who calls Lander “a science polymath” for his breadth of knowledge across many disciplines. That’s also true for policy, Holdren says. “Eric’s fingerprints were on every one of PCAST’s 39 reports” issued under Obama, Holdren adds, noting that six of them covered previous pandemics and public health crises.
Lander will be the first biologist to hold both jobs, and he’ll be the first to hold Cabinet-level status. Holdren expects Lander to take full advantage of that forum.
“He’s incredibly good at explaining complex scientific issues,” Holdren says about Lander’s role in presenting PCAST reports to the president. Biden participated in several of those briefings, Holdren noted, calling the former vice president “a real science wonk.”
Lander has long had a high scientific profile. He co-led the public Human Genome Project to the completion of a first draft in 2001. In 2003 he founded and now leads the Broad Institute, a genome-sequencing powerhouse. Lander is known for his enthusiasm for big science projects and his healthy ego. A few years ago he was criticized for downplaying the role of some scientists in developing CRISPR, the gene-editing tool that has transformed biology in recent years.
In addition to choosing Lander, Biden wrote him a letter that issues him marching orders. It invokes former President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 letter to Vannevar Bush that led to a report that has shaped U.S. science policy ever since. Biden asks Lander and his team to address five questions about the future of science and technology, and recommend how his administration can combat public health threats, mitigate the impact of climate change, keep the country a world leader in innovation, use science to improve social equity, and strengthen the U.S. research enterprise.
Just as important, however, was Biden’s directive that Lander should go about the task by “working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public.” It reads as a “welcome home” message to those scientists who felt that Biden’s predecessor too often ignored—or rejected—their knowledge in setting national policy.
Key role for OSTP?
If confirmed by the Senate, Lander will lead a White House office that Congress created in 1976 in response to the dismantling of the federal science advisory apparatus by then-President Richard Nixon. Its director has traditionally also served as the president’s science adviser. Although the OSTP position requires Senate confirmation—giving lawmakers the ability to monitor the office’s activities—Congress plays no role in determining whether the OSTP director is also named assistant to the president for science and technology, a position that derives its authority directly from the president. And Biden is going a step further by giving Lander a seat in his Cabinet.
Traditionally, the OSTP director helps shepherd the administration’s priorities in science by coordinating policy across many agencies, addressing gaps in national science policies, and seeding new initiatives. But the office’s power has waxed and waned under different administrations.
Under Obama, Holdren staffed up OSTP to historic levels. He also used PCAST to flag dozens of issues he felt warranted national attention.
The current OSTP director, research meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, was given a much more limited portfolio. Taking office halfway through President Donald Trump’s 4-year term, he also maintained a low profile. An expert on violent storms, Droegemeier avoided the spotlight on a host of science-related controversies that bubbled up during his tenure, including political interference in the scientific mandates of the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. PCAST has only met a few times, and Droegemeier has said pointedly that its job is to help implement policy, not to issue another report.
Droegemeier has put most of his effort into improving what he calls the academic research enterprise. He has used an interagency committee to address rising concerns by policymakers about the community’s ability to police itself against perceived threats to national security, that is, China’s aggressive efforts to reap the fruits of federally funded research, as well as the ability of universities to crack down on internal problems such as sexual harassment and financial conflicts of interest.
It’s not clear how OSTP’s role will evolve under Lander. Biden has already appointed a high-profile team to lead his administration’s efforts to curb climate change, a topic that Obama’s OSTP was deeply involved in. And Biden has also created a team to address the COVID-19 public health crisis.
But Holdren thinks that leaves plenty of space for Lander. “His job is to make sure that the president gets the best possible advice on the science behind any policy issue,” Holdren says. “And I think Eric will be superb at pulling things together for Biden.”
Biden today also announced other members of his science team. He has nominated sociologist Alondra Nelson to be deputy director for science and society at OSTP, a new position. Nelson is president of the Social Science Research Council and a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Her 2016 book, the “Social Life of DNA,” explored the impact of direct-to-consumer genetic testing on perpetuating racial inequities. She is the former dean of the social sciences at Columbia University and former director of its Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
On Twitter, Nelson's nomination was greeted with applause. "What an incredibly important and forward-thinking move to include social perspectives on science and tech policy in the office," tweeted Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan. "I've long thought that the Office of Science/Tech/Policy needed more [Science, Technology and Society]/social science minds inside," tweeted Dana Boyd, a sociotechnical researcher at Microsoft Research, Data & Society.
Biden will name Frances Arnold and Maria Zuber to serve as the external co-chairs of PCAST. Arnold is an expert in protein engineering, and the first U.S. woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Zuber, a planetary scientist, is the first woman to lead a NASA spacecraft mission and has chaired the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation. They will be the first women to serve as co-chairs of PCAST.
Biden also said he will retain Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who was originally appointed by Obama in 2009 and stayed on through the Trump administration. NIH has played a pivotal role in battling the coronavirus pandemic, coordinating and funding vaccine, diagnostics, and therapeutics development. Observers expected that Collins might be asked to stay on to maintain the continuity of NIH’s response.
Update, 16 January 2021, 10:43 a.m.: This story has been updated to include information on Nelson's nomination and the letter that Biden sent Lander.