Joe Biden names top geneticist Eric Lander as science adviser

Nature
Eric Lander

If confirmed, Eric Lander will be the first biologist to run the US Office of Science and Technology Policy.

US president-elect Joe Biden has chosen decorated geneticist Eric Lander as presidential science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In what would be a first for this position, if Lander is confirmed by the US Senate, he will serve as a member of Biden’s cabinet.

Many scientists have long called for the OSTP director to be raised to a cabinet-level position. “Having science elevated to its rightful place in the administration seems to me a very positive step,” says Harold Varmus, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and former head of the National Institutes of Health. “I think it marks a very important moment in the history of science in the government.”

“It signifies the importance of who will be in the room when decisions are being made,” says Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy expert at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Lander was a key leader of the Human Genome Project — the race to sequence the human genome, which ended in 2003 — and is president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He will be the first biologist to run OSTP.

Between 2009 and 2017, he also co-chaired the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an elite panel that advises the US president. Among the PCAST reports issued during Lander’s tenure were some dealing with pandemics, vaccination, energy and climate change.

“This is a marvelous appointment, it’s great to see a life scientist running the OSTP,” says Varmus, who co-chaired PCAST with Lander.

When Biden named Lander to his team on 15 January, he also announced a number of other respected scientists to key positions in his administration. “Science will always be at the forefront of my administration — and these world-renowned scientists will ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts, and the truth,” Biden said in a statement.

Caltech bioengineer and Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and MIT geophysicist Maria Zuber will co-chair PCAST under Biden. Alondra Nelson, nominated to be deputy director for science and society at OSTP, is a social scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who studies genetics, race and other societal issues.

“These are excellent appointments, highly qualified and experienced, and well grounded in science,” Rita Colwell, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland at College Park, and a former director of the National Science Foundation, wrote to Nature in an e-mail.

Biden also announced that geneticist Francis Collins would stay on as head of the National Institutes of Health. Collins was appointed to lead the biomedical research agency in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

One major question is what parts of science policy Lander and his office will be responsible for. Biden has already established a separate, high-level team to lead the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a team to drive forward his climate agenda. With COVID-19 and climate tasked to other groups, it remains to be seen what science issues OSTP will be able to take the lead on, says Pielke. “OSTP always has a challenge in figuring out what policy lanes it plays in,” he says.

OSTP typically coordinates science policy and priorities across US federal agencies, including organizing how much money the president will ask Congress to allocate for various research areas throughout the government.

Biden has given at least a hint of what he’d like Lander to work on, however. In a letter to Lander, Biden outlined five key questions he wanted OSTP to tackle, including how to draw lessons from the pandemic to inform public health more broadly and how science and technology breakthroughs could help address climate change.

Originally trained as a mathematician, Lander is a powerful figure in US science circles and one of the highest-cited researchers in the world. As one of the leaders of the epic race to sequence the human genome, he oversaw the huge centre of automated machines that performed much of the sequencing. In 2016, he was criticized for writing a history of the gene-editing technique CRISPR that emphasized the role of his Broad colleague Feng Zhang and downplayed the role of Jennifer Doudna of the University California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, in Berlin. The Broad Institute was embroiled in a CRISPR patent battle with Berkeley at the time. Charpentier and Doudna went on to win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their pioneering work on CRISPR.

Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated as president on 20 January. Lander’s appointment is only the fourth time since the OSTP was created, in 1976, that a leader has been tapped for it prior to Inauguration Day, says Pielke. The outgoing OSTP director, meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, wasn’t appointed by President Donald Trump until more than a year and a half into his administration.

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