Biden’s Science Advisors – Eric Lander, Alondra Nelson, Frances Arnold, Maria Zuber and Francis Collins

March 5. By Michael Sales. It is not surprising that President Biden has assembled an impressive set of scientific advisors.

William Thomas and Mitch Ambrose, writing in the American Institute of Physics’ Science Policy News, were among those announcing the selection of geneticist Eric Lander to be the President’s science advisor, a position elevated to Cabinet rank. If confirmed, Lander will serve as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The office of Science and Technology Policy has never previously had a cabinet position.

Eric Lander

Regarding this unprecedented appointment, Biden stated: “I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.”

Lander trained as a mathematician, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1978 from Princeton University, finishing first in his class. He won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1987 for his early work in the field of molecular biology. He became involved in the early stages of the Human Genome Project. Lander founded the Broad Institute, co-sited at MIT and Harvard University. Under Lander’s leadership, the Broad Institute has employed thousands of scientists.

Biden’s letter to Lander suggests his position will have a strong strategic focus, instructing him to recommend “general strategies, specific actions, and new structures” for science and technology. Biden asks Lander to consider five: what lessons the pandemic holds for public health, how science and technology can address climate change, how the U.S. can ensure it is a world leader in technology, how the benefits of science and technology can be broadly shared among Americans, and how to ensure the “long-term health” of science and technology in the U.S. 

Alondra Nelson

Moving into a just-established role, Alondra Nelson will be Lander’s Deputy Director for Science and Society at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Nelson is a sociologist scholar regarding race and social inequalities. She is noted for her work on the history of science, medicine and technology, and she wrote a book about the history of grassroots organizing around medical rights for civil and human rights.

Caltech’s Frances Arnold and MIT’s Maria Zuber will chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Frances Arnold
Maria Zuber

In 2018, Arnold won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She is also noted for having demonstrated her commitment to scientific integrity by retracting a paper she had published when evidence of its flaws came to light.

Zuber is the Vice President for Research at MIT.  She leads MIT’s Climate Action Plan and is the first woman to lead a science department at MIT and the first woman to lead a NASA mission. She has taken an active interest in environmental research, working to expand MIT’s footprint in Earth systems research and co-leading development of its climate action plan. Accepting her appointment to PCAST, she noted that her grandfathers’ work as coal miners in Pennsylvania, where she grew up, has influenced her views on policy. “I could not be more excited for the efforts of this administration to deploy science to help breathe new life into those places and into so many communities, large and small, that are hurting today,”

Lander’s appointment is not without controversy. In addition to patents arguments over CRISPR, feminists are aggravated by what they view as the continuing dominance of white men in American science. Writing in Scientific American, the organization 500 Women Scientists lamented the fact that the opportunity to “finally break the long lineage of white male science advisers has been missed. This was a chance to substantively address historical inequalities and transform harmful stereotypes by appointing someone with new perspectives into the top science adviser role. Despite a long list of supremely qualified people that could have held this position and inspired a whole new generation of scientists, the glass ceiling in American science remains intact.”

In late October 2020, Lander described his point of view in an Op-Ed piece in the Boston Globe as follows:

“Some things are non-negotiable. Science’s commitment to proceed carefully, require evidence, and admit error may seem like a sucker’s strategy in an age of political bluster, but it’s what makes science succeed in the long run. We’ll need to keep fighting hard for truth.

A key problem is that science often reveals truths that challenge economic interests — provoking aggressive efforts to fight back. When science found that cigarettes cause cancer, tobacco companies paid people to put up a smoke screen. In this century, climate change research has been met with vehement denial by fossil fuel interests. Rather than debating solutions, opponents dismiss evidence — rising global temperatures, massive forest fires from Australia to the Arctic Circle, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, glaciers retreating — as unrelated flukes.

It’s also become glaringly apparent that the economic benefits of science are unevenly distributed — going disproportionately to men, white people, and tech hubs on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Without a more inclusive approach, the general public’s support for science will wane.

But much broader conversations will be needed to ensure that science benefits society and society trusts science. In the 1960s, decisions were largely up to scientists and politicians. In the 2020s, the decision-making must include a much wider range of people, who will need to be prepared to grapple thoughtfully with hard choices.

What’s to be done? Science and society are increasingly out of sync, but progress depends on their partnership. It’s time to refresh the compact.

Biden also announced he has chosen to keep Francis Collins on as director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he has held since President Obama appointed him in 2009.