WASHINGTON – In a move that signals the importance of science to the incoming administration, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday a plan to make the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy a Cabinet-level agency.
To head the office, Biden nominated Eric Lander, a mathematician and geneticist who helped map the human genome and founded the Broad Institute, a Boston-based biomedical research center famous for work on the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9.
Lander, who also is a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School, previously served on President Barack Obama’s council of science advisers. His background in life sciences is unusual for the top job at the OSTP, which has typically gone to physicists who are able to advise the president on issues concerning nuclear weapons and related technologies.
His nomination suggests the importance of biology expertise in the midst of covid-19 pandemic, which has killed almost 400,000 Americans.
Biden also named MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist who led efforts to map the surfaces of the moon and Mars, and Nobel chemistry laureate Frances Arnold, a pioneer in synthesizing artificial proteins, to head the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
They will be the first women to co-chair the council.
Alondra Nelson, the president of the Social Science Research Council and a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, will serve as the OSTP’s deputy director for science and society, focusing on issues of science, policy and social inequality.
Meanwhile, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, a geneticist-physician who also spearheaded the Human Genome Project, will remain in his current role, the transition said. Collins was appointed to the job in 2009 by Obama.
“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 news release.
Lander will have to be confirmed by the Senate, a process which could face significant delays.
By boosting president’s science adviser to Cabinet level, Biden set a stark contrast with the Trump administration, which waited 19 months to nominate an OSTP director and operated the office with a smaller staff than the Obama administration. Kelvin Droegemeier, a research meteorologist, who served in that role, was not viewed as particularly influential in the West Wing.
“When the science adviser is at the Cabinet table, the ability and the clout that comes with that to integrate science into all kinds of decision-making is so powerful,” said biochemist Sudip Parikh, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He said it was important for the office to work not only with traditional scientific agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, but all parts of the federal government – offering everything from statistical insights for the Census to climate expertise for the Department of Defense.
“There are 20 agencies across government that fund science,” Parikh said, “and that needs coordination that you can only get with a Cabinet-level position.”
Many scientific experts also applauded Lander’s nomination. John Holdren, who was science adviser to Obama, praised Lander as “a polymath, a superb scientist and scientific leader and a deeply committed exponent of bringing science and technology to bear on improving the human condition.”
Lander is an advocate for greater government support of science and technology. In 2017, he co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for hefty investment in what he dubbed America’s “Miracle Machine,” the engine of publicly-funded research that powers the nation’s growth. The $4 billion NIH investment in the Human Genome Project, he pointed out, led to an estimated $1 trillion in economic activity.
Kei Koizumi, former senior adviser for science policy at AAAS, was named OSTP’s chief of staff. Narda Jones, an adviser to Democratic staff on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will be its chief legislative affairs director.
“This is a scientific dream team,” Parikh said, praising the appointees’ diversity of expertise and policymaking experience.
In a letter to Lander posted on the transition website, Biden wrote that it is “essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy.” He laid out questions facing his new science office: What lessons does the pandemic offer on the nation’s public health needs? What scientific advances are required to address climate change? How can the United States maintain technological and economic dominance? How can the administration nurture research and ensure breakthroughs benefit all Americans?
Though Biden ran on a promise to tackle global warming, there is no obvious climate expert among Biden’s OSTP nominees and appointees. But Biden has named former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy to be the first-ever national climate adviser with an office based in the West Wing. And former secretary of state John Kerry will serve as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, marking the first time the National Security Council includes an official dedicated to climate change.
“So much to be done, and it will take everyone working together,” Lander tweeted Friday, appending the hashtag “#Scienceisback.”
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The Washington Post’s Andrew Freedman and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.