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By Mitch Ambrose
Days before his inauguration, President Biden announced selections for several senior science policy leadership positions within his administration, including geneticist Eric Lander as his science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Biden also elevated the science advisor position to Cabinet rank, a move that is unprecedented in the history of White House science policy.
Alongside Lander, Biden named sociologist Alondra Nelson as OSTP’s deputy director for “science and society,” an entirely new role. He also appointed Caltech bioengineer Frances Arnold and MIT geophysicist and vice president for research Maria Zuber as the new co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, marking the first time the council will be led by women.
Lander is widely known in the biomedical research community for playing a major role in the Human Genome Project and later founding the Broad Institute, a major genomics research center co-located at MIT and Harvard University that he directed up until joining the Biden administration. He has long been active in science policy, serving as co-chair of PCAST for the duration of the Obama administration. He also is a leading critic of forensic science methods and how they are used in courtroom settings.
In a letter appointing Lander to the job, Biden invoked the recent 75th anniversary of ”Science — The Endless Frontier,” a landmark report that World War II science administrator Vannevar Bush wrote at the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt. Suggesting another such pivot point has arrived, Biden wrote, “I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.”
How Lander’s role will mesh with other science-related positions in the White House remains an outstanding question. For instance, Biden has also designated Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as his “chief medical adviser,” and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler as the “chief science officer” for his pandemic response. In addition, his two top climate advisors, Gina McCarthy and John Kerry, have their own dedicated staffs.
Biden’s letter to Lander suggests his position will have a strong focus on strategic matters, instructing him to recommend “general strategies, specific actions, and new structures” for the federal government’s science and technology portfolio.
Echoing four questions that Roosevelt posed to Bush, Biden asked Lander to consider five: what lessons the pandemic holds for public health, how science and technology can address climate change, how the US can ensure it is a world leader in technology, how the benefits of science and technology can be broadly shared among Americans, and how to ensure the “long-term health” of science and technology in the US.
The first task that Biden has assigned Lander is to lead a wide-ranging review of scientific integrity policies across the federal government, which will recommend improvements and examine past instances where researchers have been subject to “improper political influence.”
Outside the White House, Biden has chosen to retain Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health, a position Collins has held since President Obama appointed him in 2009. As expected, Sethuraman Panchanathan is continuing his six-year term as director of the National Science Foundation, having been confirmed by the Senate for the job last year. Biden will continue to make selections for key science leadership jobs within his administration over the course of the coming months, many of which will require Senate approval.
The author is Director of FYI.
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