US President-elect Joe Biden named geneticist Eric Lander, the president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to be both his science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a position that for the first time will be elevated to the cabinet level. If confirmed by Congress, Lander will also be the first biologist ever to hold either position.
“Eric Lander is a true Renaissance scientist in his broad grasp of the many fields of science and their interrelationships,” Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, tells The New York Times. “At a time when the nation and the world face complex challenges that will require harnessing the full power of physical, life, environmental, social, biomedical and engineering sciences, Eric is an inspired choice of a scientist of international stature to ensure that science guides sound policy.”
Lander has long maintained a high scientific profile: he co-led the Human Genome Project, the international effort to sequence the human genome that culminated in a highly cited Nature article, on which Lander was the lead author. Originally trained as a mathematician, Lander won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1987 at age 30. In 2003, he founded the Broad Institute, a leading biomedical and genomic research center.
Lander’s ascension into Biden’s cabinet represents a win for the scientific community, which has long called for the OSTP director to be included alongside the vice president and heads of 15 executive departments. “Having science elevated to its rightful place in the administration seems to me a very positive step,” Harold Varmus, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York with former roles leading the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, tells Nature. “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,” Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells Nature.
In a letter to Lander, Biden outlined five key areas he wants OSTP to focus on, including how to draw lessons from the pandemic to inform public health looking forward and how science and technology could help address climate change.
Lander also cochaired former President Barack Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Some PCAST reports issued during Lander’s tenure included topics such as pandemics, vaccination, energy, and climate change. California Institute of Technology bioengineer and Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and MIT geophysicist Maria Zuber will cochair PCAST under Biden.
President Donald Trump left PCAST idle for 33 months, and when he did reconvene the panel in 2019, only one of his appointees worked in academia, with representatives of private industry composing the rest of the council.
Lander plans to take academic leave from the Broad to serve in the White House. Cancer geneticist Todd Golub, the institute’s current chief scientific officer, plans to succeed Lander as director of the Broad.
In 2016, Lander was criticized for writing a history of CRISPR in Cell 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. Doudna and Charpentier received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their pioneering work on CRISPR.
In a press release on Friday, Biden also announced that Alondra Nelson, the president of the Social Science Research Council, will serve as the deputy OSTP director; Kei Koizumi, who also served in Obama’s OSTP, will serve as the office’s chief of staff; and Francis Collins, the longtime director of the National Institutes of Health, will continue leading the agency.