Researchers frustrated as Biden science adviser resigns amid scandal
This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower client Rachel Wallace and was originally published here.
The American scientific community is in shock after the resignation last night of President Joe Biden’s top scientific adviser, Eric Lander. Revealed by media reports Politicsa White House investigation found Lander violated the Biden administration’s workplace policy by bullying and humiliating staff.
Researchers hope that leadership will soon be restored to Lander’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) so it can continue Biden’s agenda, which included creating a new biomedical innovations agency and the country’s pandemic overhaul. preparation plan. Some are already naming scientists who might be in a good position to replace Lander, who they say had a well-known reputation for being abrasive and aggressive towards his colleagues.
“Eric Lander is a successful researcher, but everyone knows he’s a bully,” says Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist and biodefense researcher who has worked in several US administrations. “He is widely known as arrogant and controlling.” Bernard, who testified before an elite scientific advisory board co-chaired by Lander during the administration of former President Barack Obama, notes that such behavior can backfire on government agencies, where leaders must navigate points of varied views. “He was a bad fit from the start,” Bernard says.
But some did not expect his tenure to end like this. “I expected his ambition to temper his natural inclination to be the smartest person in the room,” says Robert Cook-Deegan, who studies health science and policy at the Washington DC campus of the Arizona State University. “I’m really surprised it exploded like that.”
A disappointing situation
the Politics story revealed explosive details about a toxic work environment within the OSTP. Rachel Wallace, who had served as general counsel for the office and worked for the OSTP in several presidential administrations, filed a lawsuit in September alleging abusive behavior by Lander, including aggressive and demeaning interactions, particularly with women in the office. . The investigation found “credible evidence of instances where multiple women complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr Lander”, according to Politics.
In a statement to Nature, a spokesperson for the OSTP said the White House investigation, undertaken in late 2021, did not find “credible evidence of gender discrimination.” He did, however, identify credible violations of White House policy on a safe and respectful workplace, according to the spokesperson. The OSTP did not publish the investigation report and refused to do so for Nature, citing confidentiality surrounding personnel matters. Two congressional leaders asked for copies of Biden.
In his resignation letter to Biden, Lander said he was “devastated” by the harm his actions have caused and takes full responsibility for it. “I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to achieve our common goals, including at times challenges and criticism,” he wrote. “But clearly the things I said, and the way I said them, sometimes crossed the line into being disrespectful and demeaning to both men and women. It was never my intention. »
“This is obviously a deeply disappointing situation,” Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email to Nature. But she adds that challenges create opportunities. “I hope we learn from this moment and support greater diversity and equity in science careers.”
The OSTP is now without a leader and Biden without a congressional confirmed science adviser. Biden should waste no time in naming a replacement, says physicist Neal Lane of Rice University in Houston, who served as science adviser to former President Bill Clinton. “We just need, as soon as possible, someone in the driver’s seat who is respected inside and outside the White House,” Lane said.
When Biden appointed Lander as science adviser in early 2021, many scientists were delighted that the president had elevated the position of director of the OSTP to his inner circle of advisers – the cabinet – for the first time, giving science a place in the table for high-level discussions. Lander had been a key figure in the human genome sequencing race in the 1990s and early 2000s and was the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a biomedical research organization. He also co-directed the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) under Obama.
But at the time, critics noted his reputation as a bully and other controversies, including its author of an essay on the history of the CRISPR gene-editing technique that failed to properly credit two leading female scientists, including Doudna, for their discoveries; his association with disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; and his toast James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA structure who has frequently expressed racist, ableist and misogynistic views. During Lander’s confirmation hearing in May, several senators expressed concern about his meetings with Epstein and his treatment of women.
When he took office last June, in response to questions on these issues, lander said Nature that “for 35 years I have done a tremendous amount around the values of uplifting people and building broadly inclusive institutions. That’s where my values are, and that’s really where my job is.
The Broad Institute, from which Lander took unpaid leave when he became director of the OSTP, did not respond to Nature whether his position would be reinstated.
turn things around
With the position of presidential science adviser once again open, the researchers are recommending candidates who they believe could make a difference. Bernard hopes that the next director of OSTP will have had the experience of managing a large multi-sector science institute, such as a national laboratory, and will have navigated the intersection between policy, budget and science. He and others have suggested potential replacements, such as Jill Hruby, undersecretary for nuclear security at the US Department of Energy; Frances Arnold, a biochemical engineer and Nobel laureate who co-chairs Biden’s PCAST; and Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist who was the associate director of OSTP under Obama.
Gigi Gronvall, a biosecurity researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says the management style of any replacement will be important when it comes to being effective within the agency, but also because that he will serve as a model. One of the primary missions of OSTP should be to provide American science leadership for the next generation, which means creating an environment that encourages women and people from underrepresented communities to stay in science.
“I hope they put women, and especially women of color, at the top of the list,” says Emily Pinckney, executive director of 500 Women Scientists, an advocacy group who wrote about his opposition to Lander’s nomination in American Scientist in January 2021. She suggests that two researchers already at OSTP, sociologist Alondra Nelson and ocean scientist Jane Lubchenco, are suitable for the role. “Representation matters,” she says, explaining that challenges like the pandemic and climate change disproportionately affect women and people of color, and so scientists tackling these issues need to be able to connect with them. these communities.
The road ahead
Most scientists expect the OSTP to continue its work under the leadership team assembled by Lander, but Cook-Deegan says the loss of the bureau chief comes at a critical time.
Lander was in charge of Biden’s new Cancer Moonshot initiative, a revival of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce cancer death rates, and he also led efforts to create an Agency for Advanced Health Research Projects ( ARPA-H), which would be a high-risk, high-return funding agency to advance biomedical breakthroughs. At the same time, he is in charge of the search for a new director of the National Institutes of Health, following the recent retirement of Francis Collins.
“There’s just a ton of work to do, and the OSTP is well positioned to help on all of those fronts,” Cook-Deegan says.
Other OSTP initiatives, such as promoting environmental justice and overhauling science integrity policies across the federal government, may actually move faster with Lander out of the way, Andy Rosenberg says , who directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I think Lander was slowing things down” by wanting to be directly involved in so many things the OSTP is trying to do, he says.
Roger Pielke, Jr., a science policy researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says he’s not convinced Lander was a major player in advancing Biden’s agenda. But he wonders if the scandal could lead future presidents to consider whether they want to keep a science adviser in the cabinet. “Having a disgraced member of your cabinet resign is a little different than having someone in an obscure [White House] office do it,” he says.
The OSTP official said the office is well positioned to continue carrying out Biden’s science agenda. “The president has been very clear that science has a place at the table and we will protect scientific integrity in this government – and that will continue throughout this transition,” the spokesperson said. from the office.
Lander plans to leave the White House no later than February 18.