From Science News StaffMay. 28, 2021, 12:25 p.m.
The US Senate today confirmed mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander as director of the White House Science and Technology Policy Office (OSTP). Lander will also serve as scientific advisor to President Joe Biden and have a seat in Biden’s cabinet.
The 64-year-old lander has long played a prominent role in US research and science policy. He was President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute, jointly operated by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He co-chaired the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology for 8 years under former President Barack Obama, where he worked closely with Obama Science Advisor John Holdren and interacted with Biden, the Vice President. Lander also co-led the public human genome project to complete a first draft in 2001.
Biden’s nomination for Lander, announced in January, received mixed reactions from the research community. Many were happy with the election, saying Lander had the background and experience to be an accomplished White House operator. Others, however, criticized the choice, noting that Lander had conflicts with other researchers in the past, including having been criticized for downplaying the role of two female scientists in developing the CRISPR gene editing tool and for publicly addressing geneticists James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, despite Watson’s history of racist and misogynistic statements. Some were disappointed that Biden had selected a white man for the post and said he should have nominated a woman or person of color.
These questions – as well as several meetings that Lander, under the direction of the Broad Institute, had with Jeffrey Epstein, an investor and research philanthropist convicted of sex offenses – appeared to have helped the Senate to consider Lander’s nomination delay. When his confirmation hearing finally took place on April 29, Lander apologized for referring to the work of CRISPR pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in Unsung Heroes of CRISPR, a 2016 article published in Cell, downplayed. “I made a mistake,” said Lander. “I felt terrible.” He also defended his meetings with Epstein, saying they were brief and the Broad Institute never accepted donations from the financier.
Lander received confirmation of a vote today.
As head of the OSTP – and the first OSTP director appointed to the cabinet – Lander is expected to play a key role in advancing the Biden administration’s research agenda, which includes strengthening the federal role in climate change research and providing US support Include in fighting technology and scientific competition from China.