Biden names Lander as chief science adviser with Cabinet post

Incoming president names advisory team while pushing social sciences and battle against cancer

January 18, 2021
Times Square tribute to president-elect Joe Biden
Source: iStock

US president-elect Joe Biden is giving university research unprecedented prominence, choosing leading academics for his top science posts, including the first ever Cabinet-level chief science adviser.

The group is led by Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, named by Mr Biden as the science adviser and nominated to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Mr Biden’s appointments, which attracted plaudits across higher education, also include a new top White House advisory position in the social sciences and the extension of Francis Collins’ tenure as director of the National Institutes of Health.

The timing of the choices, before the president-elect even takes office, is part of the signal that Mr Biden said he wants to provide about his planned reliance on scientific expertise.

President Trump, by contrast, has repeatedly questioned scientific expertise and went nearly halfway through his term in office before taking on Kelvin Droegemeier, a former vice-president for research at the University of Oklahoma, as his science adviser and OSTP director.

“As president,” Mr Biden said of scientific discovery broadly, “I’ll pay great attention to these issues again.”

That commitment, he said, drove his decision to grant Cabinet membership to his science adviser, Professor Lander, a professor of biology at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University with a history of working in the political and scientific worlds.

Mr Biden also named Alondra Nelson the president of the Social Science Research Council – a nearly century-old forum of scholars and policymakers – as the first ever deputy director for science and society in the White House science office.

Professor Nelson, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a former dean of social sciences at Columbia University, promised to apply her expertise on racial inequities in ensuring broad benefits of scientific discovery.

When researchers make choices about study designs and testing, she said, “it matters who makes those choices – it matters who they’re thinking about when they do”.

Social science also may play into Mr Biden’s promise of heavy focus on the battle against cancer, given that nearly half of US deaths from the disease are tied to modifiable risk factors, and many others involve environmental pollutants.

Cancer already accounts for the biggest division of the NIH, which itself is the biggest federal agency for distributing basic research money. Mr Biden made clear his intent to push that fight even harder, driven in part by the death of his son Beau in 2015.

That year, he recalled, he declined to enter the 2016 race for president and felt regret “that I wouldn’t be the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it”.

Now, he said, “as president, I will do everything we can to get it done”.

Beyond cancer, Mr Biden listed five broad areas of priority focus for his science team: ending the coronavirus pandemic, restoring the US economy, fighting climate change, improving US competitiveness in research, and boosting public trust in science.

Mr Biden also named two academic leaders – Maria Zuber, vice-president for research at MIT, and Frances Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology – as co-chairs for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a panel of outside experts.

PCAST, which Professor Lander co-chaired in the Obama administration, is typically a mix of academic and corporate scientists. Mr Trump left it empty through most of his presidency.

Dr Collins, a former University of Michigan faculty member, gained renown as head of the Human Genome Project, in which Professor Lander played a key research role. The NIH director is already the agency’s longest serving head, a rare top government official to be retained during the switch from the Obama to the Trump administrations.

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