Biden nominates Arati Prabhakar as US chief science adviser

Choice of former Darpa director to replace Lander affirms growing government-wide shift towards emphasising applied research

June 22, 2022
Source: Christopher Michel
Arati Prabhakar

Joe Biden has picked Arati Prabhakar, a former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as his new chief science adviser, signalling an ever-greater commitment to applied research.

Dr Prabhakar, a native of India, will with US Senate confirmation replace Eric Lander, the president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who left the White House in February amid reports that he mistreated his staff.

Dr Prabhakar spent most of the Obama administration leading Darpa, the federal agency now imitated globally for its strategy of making big investments in research projects judged to have difficult odds of success but grand payoffs if they do.

She arrives to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy just as the Biden administration and Congress are spreading across the main federal research funding agencies the Darpa model and a general prioritisation of product-driven academic science.

The moves – covering both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation – are giving universities the prospect of greater government investment alongside fears of a possible de-emphasis of curiosity-driven basic science.

Mr Biden referenced that strategy in his announcement of Dr Prabhakar’s nomination, saying he hoped she would help “leverage science, technology, and innovation to expand our possibilities, solve our toughest challenges, and make the impossible possible”.

Dr Prabhakar’s career has alternated between government service and the private sector, although with a constant focus on the application of technology to societal challenges. Before Darpa, she led the National Institute of Standards and Technology. For the past three years, she has headed Actuate, a non-profit promoter of using Darpa-like tactics in areas that include climate change, chronic disease and machine learning.

She will be the first female, first immigrant, and first non-white person to serve as a Senate-confirmed head of the White House science office, known as the OSTP, which was established in 1976.

As part of her selection, Mr Biden made clear that Dr Prabhakar would retain the honour and authority that he first announced with the selection of Professor Lander, of the OSTP post being recognised as Cabinet-rank.

Professor Lander’s own confirmation by the US Senate was delayed by concerns over his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. He resigned less than a year later after reports of an internal White House investigation in which 14 current and former OSTP staff accused him of bullying and demeaning subordinates.

The Prabhakar nomination shows no sign of controversy, with the chief congressional reaction consisting of praise from Democrats.

University leaders also showed unqualified enthusiasm. Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, the leading grouping of US research institutions, described herself as being “so pleased” by the nomination. Dr Prabhakar was “well-known to AAU and our member institutions” and brings “exceptional qualifications”, Ms Snyder said.

Since Professor Lander’s departure, the OSTP’s deputy director, Alondra Nelson, has been serving as its acting director. The most recent director of the NIH, Francis Collins, has been serving as the acting White House science adviser. Both roles will be combined under Dr Prabhakar.

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