Five days before his inauguration, President Joe Biden announced that he would nominate Dr. Eric Lander, a renowned researcher and scientist, as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for his administration.
Lander is one of just four OSTP director nominees in history to be announced before the inauguration, and he would become the first ever OSTP director to serve on a president’s cabinet. Though the Senate confirmation date has not yet been announced, Lander has been Biden’s top science advisor since Jan. 25.
This historic moment has set the scientific community abuzz. Biden’s early actions have set the tone for the administration’s positive attitude toward science, leading many to expect strong changes in science policy.
Lander’s seminal work in genetics has made him a giant in the scientific community. In fact, it was his work with government-funded scientists through the Human Genome Project that first brought Lander to the White House. Lander took a leading role in the HGP, an international effort to map the sequence of human DNA. The published paper, in which Lander was the lead author, is a seminal work in the scientific community that has been cited over 14,000 times.
The road to publication required Lander to balance academia, industry and government. The HGP was racing against Celera Genomics, a company who wanted to patent the sequence. To mediate, the White House stepped in: former President Clinton and his OSTP Director brought industry and academia together, leading to a partnership that gave way to breakthroughs in the sequencing.
In 2009, Lander returned to the White House. This time, he served as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He remained in the role for the entirety of Obama’s administration.
In the letter naming Lander OSTP director, Biden identified five key areas on which the OSTP will be tasked to focus: biomedicine, climate change, social science, science infrastructure, and research and development.
Under the last administration, the OSTP’s staff dropped from 145 staffers to 35. As Biden restores the office to its former significance, he runs the risk of assigning overlapping portfolios to his teams.
Addressing climate change is traditionally an OSTP responsibility, but Biden created an independent Office of Domestic Climate Policy. Now that the OSTP is being rebuilt, it will need to find its policy niche.
The role of the OSTP has historically shifted between administrations: the strength of the office depends largely on the sitting president, the director and the trust between them. This bodes well for Lander’s efficacy, as he often briefed Biden while serving on PCAST.
R&D, one of the five key areas highlighted in Biden’s letter, presents the most potential for Lander to shine.
Lander is a well-known proponent of ‘big science,’ or large research centers that undertake large projects and require significant funding. Big science, which has led to projects like the human genome, the atom bomb, and the Apollo program, has many distinct advantages: it often paves the way to breakthrough discoveries, accelerates the innovation pipeline, and draws public interest.
In 2018, Florida’s public universities received $3.8 billion in research funding from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health. If R&D and biomedicine are emphasized by the OSTP, the increasing trend of grants to Florida’s public universities will likely continue.
Increased R&D funding is important for more than epistemic reasons. In the long term, it leads to stronger innovation and makes America more competitive in the international technology market. In the short term, it means more projects, meaning more jobs.
Additionally, federal funding has been found to incentivize business-financed R&D, further strengthening cooperation between industry, government and academia.
Yet not everyone is pleased with Biden’s choice. Lander has been criticized heavily for his paper “The Heroes of CRISPR,” in which he gave a history of the gene-editing technique. In the paper, he over-emphasized the role of a colleague and simultaneously ignored the contributions of two female researchers, both of whom were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work. The backlash centered around both sexism in science and conflicts of interest.
Lander’s support of big science has its drawbacks. Scientists who are not as well established, often women, people of color, and younger scientists, become less likely to be funded. In 2017, HBCUs received only 0.4% of total NSF funding.
Additionally, it is riskier for investors to fund a few large projects instead of various small projects: if a large project fails to return significant or marketable results, it can have a greater net loss than if a small project fails to return results.
Though it remains to be seen if Lander’s connections to big science will influence research funding, his history in science policy indicates his qualifications to lead the OSTP and advise the administration on the key areas in which science and society overlap.
In taking the momentous action of elevating the Director of the OSTP to his cabinet, President Biden has sent the message that science plays an important role in government. The task of creating science policy ethically and prudently, however, may rest largely on Lander’s shoulders.
Featured image: President Joe Biden at an event in Arizona. Unmodified photo by Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/36hu0AB)
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