By Shivani Majmudar
President Joe Biden’s White House science team faces cascading crises as it takes command amid COVID-19, escalating climate change and crippling public doubts about science. But scientists across the country are confident the new administration is up to the challenge, especially under the leadership of science adviser Eric Lander, the pioneer who helped map the human genome.
Biden selected Lander, a renowned geneticist and mathematician, to be his science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) before his inauguration. If confirmed, Lander will be the first life scientist to hold either position, as well as the first to hold Cabinet-level status.
“[Biden’s] appointment sends a powerful message that science will regain its place as the foundation for formulating the future of medical and health policy,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a physician and professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an email.
Veteran geoscientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University sees environmental issues and other science policy securing high priority as well. Not only is the recognition of biomedical sciences at the top positions in government long overdue, he said, but Lander’s expertise and knowledge of the scientific process also will inform policy solutions across all sectors.
Lander was the principle investigator in the famous Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire coding of human DNA in 2003. Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, he was co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and advised the president on many issues that are still prevalent today including climate change, clean energy and vaccine rollout during the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009.
Lander will step down from his role as the founding director of the Broad Institute, a research collaborative of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to serve in the White House again.
“The science adviser is someone who brings science to the table of policy discussion and understands the difference between science and unsubstantiated opinion,” said science policy leader Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center of Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s what Lander can do and what I believe he will do.”
More broadly, scientists look forward to the dawn of a new era in which the nation’s leadership respects science, renews public trust in science and shapes evidence-based policy in the public’s best interest — a stark contrast from the past four years.
“It’s tough to have an influence if you’re not in the room,” Rosenberg said of scientists during former President Donald Trump’s administration. “There’s a lot of catching up to do.”
Biden has ambitious plans to do just that. To address the raging pandemic, he is committed to administering 100 million COVID-19 vaccines in his first 100 days in office. This comes as recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests only 46% of all vaccine doses distributed so far have been administered.
Biden’s climate agenda is just as bold. It calls for the U.S. to achieve 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Other priorities Biden set for the Cabinet-level science post include technological innovation, racial justice and long-term economic sustainability. Biden outlined these in a letter he wrote to Lander after his nomination.
Some scientists have reservations about the new team, particularly about the need to stress climate reform. Joellen Russell, a professor of biogeochemical dynamics and a leading national expert in climate science on faculty at the University of Arizona, said she is incredibly enthusiastic about the prospect of the country’s scientific future. But she added she is surprised the climate team was comprised mostly of lawyers and policy people.
“I think there are some gaps that are unlikely to be seen by people who are not climate scientists,” Russell said.
Russell is a strong proponent of accountability through public verification of federal action taken to mitigate climate change, such as policies to lower carbon emissions. Climate scientists are the best positioned to develop effective and accurate testing mechanisms, she said.
Russell agreed with Rosenberg and Alley, though, that the responsibility falls on the science community to support the administration and hold it to its commitments.
The rest of Biden’s science team is a diverse, deeply respected group of qualified scientists, including two prominent female co-chairs, bioengineer Frances Arnold and sociologist Alondra Nelson. If confirmed, Nelson will serve as OSTP deputy director for science and society, another White House first.
So far, Biden has followed through on many of the promises he was elected on. In his first two days as president, Biden signed at least 17 executive orders, including establishing a national mask and social distancing mandate on federal property, and rejoining the Paris climate agreement from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2017.
Rosenberg said he also hopes to see an executive order implementing a scientific integrity policy in all federal agencies — this would explicitly outlaw any political manipulation of science before it is presented to advisory boards or the public.
“There are a lot of big tasks ahead,” Rosenberg said. “But I’m sure Dr. Lander and the White House science team will be up to it.”
Shivani Majmudar covers health disparities, science and policy at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @spmajmudarr.