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The latest on Biden’s science team: biologist named as top adviser

As the US president announces his advisers and agency heads, Nature’s guide tracks the appointees who matter most to science.

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Joe Biden sitting at a table in front of a large screen displaying a video conference.

US president-elect Joe Biden has a virtual meeting with members of his pandemic task force in early November. Credit: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty

After winning the US presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden moved quickly to begin naming the experts who will advise him on a range of issues — including science.

He immediately announced a task force of public-health specialists who will counsel him on a strategy to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, and he created a new position on the White House National Security Council devoted to climate change. Scientists have welcomed Biden’s swift actions in picking advisers with strong backgrounds in research and evidence-based policy. His predecessor, former Republican president Donald Trump, appointed multiple climate-change sceptics to top positions in key US science agencies.

Many of the nominees Biden has named must be confirmed by the US Senate — and this process, which began just before Biden was sworn in on 20 January, might be contentious. In the meantime, Nature is tracking some of the president's most important selections for science.

Who’s in and who’s out?

The people Biden has appointed to existing science-focused roles — and who they replace.

Presidential science adviser

The US Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) assists the White House on science and technology issues and coordinates science initiatives across US government agencies. Its leader serves as science adviser to the president. Biden elevated this position, for the first time, to the cabinet.

Eric Lander on the left and Kelvin Droegemeier on the right in this two photo composite

Credits: left, Newscom/Alamy; right, AP/Shutterstock

Office of Science and Technology Policy

People:

Incoming: Eric Lander

Outgoing: Kelvin Droegemeier

Qualifications

Lander, a geneticist, was co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, an elite panel of scientific advisers, under former president Barack Obama. He most recently led the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a top US biomedical-research organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as president and founding director.

Droegemeier, a meteorologist, spent much of his career as a professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, eventually becoming vice-president for research there. He served two terms on the US National Science Board, a group that advises Congress and the president and sets policies for the National Science Foundation, a major US funding agency. In March 2017, he was appointed to the cabinet of Oklahoma’s governor as secretary of science and technology.

Known for

A key player in the Human Genome Project, Lander is one of the most highly cited researchers in the world. He is also an influential and sometimes controversial figure in US science. For instance, he has been criticized for writing a history of the gene-editing technique CRISPR that downplayed the role of two female pioneers in the field.

Droegemeier didn’t start the top job at the OSTP until more than two years after former president Donald Trump took office. Before he started, the office shrank from the 130 staff employed by former president Obama to just around 50. Research security has been a priority for the OSTP, alongside programmes that boost artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

Tenure

Announced 15 January 2021; awaiting Senate confirmation.

February 2019–January 2021.

Vaccine chief

Operation Warp Speed is the US government’s ongoing effort to fund, develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The project coordinates efforts and investment across health, science and defence agencies, as well as drug companies working on COVID-19.

Left, David Kesller; right, Moncef Slaoui

Credits: left, Jason Henry/New York Times/Redux/eyevine; right, Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

Operation Warp Speed

People

Incoming: David Kessler

Outgoing: Moncef Slaoui

Qualifications

A paediatrician and lawyer, Kessler led the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from November 1990 to February 1997 under former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He also served as dean of the Yale School of Medicine, and vice chancellor for medical affairs at the University of California, San Francisco.

Slaoui is an immunologist who led development of vaccines at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and who oversaw research and development as an executive there. In 2017, he joined the board of Moderna, a US company that has developed an approved mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, but resigned after he was appointed chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed.

Known for

As FDA chief, Kessler helped to approve AIDS drugs, and helped to drive the overhaul of food-labelling regulations to require more nutrition information. He also spearheaded efforts to regulate cigarettes.

Slaoui was a key player in the COVID-19 response of former president Donald Trump’s administration. His industry ties and investments attracted criticism when his appointment was announced. He will stay on as a consultant for Operation Warp Speed.

Tenure

Announced 15 January 2021; no Senate confirmation needed.

May 2020–January 2021.

EPA leader

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safeguards public health and the environment by assessing and regulating the risks posed by chemicals and pollutants. It has a large role in climate-change mitigation by crafting rules that limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Left: Michael Regan; right: Andrew Wheeler

Credit: left, Joshua Roberts/Getty; right, Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty

Environmental Protection Agency

People

Incoming: Michael Regan

Outgoing: Andrew Wheeler

Qualifications

Regan spent more than nine years working in the EPA’s air-quality programme under former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and then eight more at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group based in New York City. For the past four years, he has led the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

Trained as an attorney, Wheeler spent four years in the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics under former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as more than a decade working for Senate Republicans on environmental policy.

Known for

In North Carolina, Regan established his department’s first environmental-justice advisory board while advancing chemical regulation and the remediation of sites contaminated with residual coal ash from power plants.

Wheeler has overseen an aggressive effort to roll back environmental rules established under former president Barack Obama; overhaul or eliminate science advisory panels; and alter how the EPA uses scientific evidence, making it harder for the agency to rely on mainstream public-health research to issue regulations.

Tenure

Announced 17 December 2020; awaiting Senate confirmation.

February 2019–January 2021.

Energy Secretary

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is charged with maintaining the country’s nuclear-weapons programme and managing a network of 17 national laboratories that conduct research into advanced materials, renewable energy and more. The agency will play an important part as Biden seeks to advance his climate agenda.

Left to right: Jennifer Granholm and Dan Brouillette

Credit: left, Michael Brochstein/Alamy; right, Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty

Department of Energy

People

Incoming: Jennifer Granholm

Outgoing: Dan Brouillette

Qualifications

Granholm was attorney-general in Michigan before serving two terms as governor of the state, from 2003 to 2011. She also served as an energy adviser to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton when Clinton ran for president in 2016. Granholm is currently an adjunct law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Before becoming energy secretary at the DOE, Brouillette served as deputy energy secretary from 2017 to 2019. He has more than 3 decades of experience in both the public and private sectors, including 14 years in finance and 2 as vice-president of Ford Motor Company.

Known for

Granholm supports advanced manufacturing as a way of making companies more efficient. In 2009, she worked with former president Barack Obama’s administration on a federal bailout plan that pushed the country’s automobile industry to invest in cleaner vehicles.

Under former president Donald Trump, Brouillette and the DOE have worked to protect the struggling coal industry, and to promote fossil-fuel development.

Tenure

Announced on 15 December 2020; awaiting Senate confirmation.

December 2019–January 2021.

CDC Leader

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tasked with protecting public health and safety, in particular through disease surveillance and data analysis. The agency historically plays a key role in pandemic response.

Left, Rochelle Walensky and right, Robert Redfield

Credit: Right, Andrew Harnik/Getty

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

People

Incoming: Rochelle Walensky

Outgoing: Robert Redfield

Qualifications

An HIV researcher specializing in antiretroviral drugs at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, for almost 20 years, Walensky is the current chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

A prominent HIV researcher, Redfield studied epidemiology and vaccines for more than three decades. He also served as a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Known for

Walensky has been outspoken during the COVID-19 pandemic about the need for science-based decision-making. She has argued against the controversial proposal that suggests allowing people to get infected to achieve ‘herd immunity’ as an effective way to control disease spread.

Redfield gained prominence during the 1980s for questioning a leading theory that HIV spread through same-sex intercourse alone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he was criticized for allowing former president Donald Trump’s administration to undermine the CDC’s role in the US pandemic response.

Tenure

Announced 7 December 2020; no Senate confirmation needed.

March 2018–January 2021.

HHS secretary

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees a multitude of programmes that address public health, biomedical research and social services. It covers the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, three agencies that are crucial for the US pandemic response.

Left, Xavier Becerra; right, Alex Azar

Credit: left, Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty; right, Tasos Katopodis/Getty

Department of Health and Human Services

People

Incoming: Xavier Becerra

Outgoing: Alex Azar

Qualifications

Becerra represented California in the US House of Representatives for more than a decade. In 2017, Governor Jerry Brown appointed him attorney-general of the state to replace Kamala Harris, who had been elected to the US Senate (Harris is now vice-president).

Azar served first as general counsel to the HHS, and later as its deputy secretary, under former president George W. Bush. He was also president of the US division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly from 2012 to 2017. Later that year, former president Donald Trump announced that he would nominate Azar to lead HHS.

Known for

As California’s attorney-general, Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration, many of them involving environmental regulations. Last November, he argued in defence of the Affordable Care Act, which expanded health-insurance coverage and patient protections in the United States, in front of the Supreme Court. In 2018, he created an environmental-justice branch in California’s Department of Justice.

Under Bush, Azar had a role in the US response to the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public-health experts criticized Azar for his role in the nation’s slow response.

Tenure

Announced 7 December 2020; awaiting Senate confirmation.

January 2018–January 2021.

Staying on:

The people Biden has asked to remain in their current science-focused jobs within the US government.

NIH Director

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds and conducts biomedical research, with a focus on diseases. The NIH has an annual budget of just over US$40 billion; in the past months, it has prioritized research on the new coronavirus, as well as efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, speaking at a Senate hearing

Credit: Michael Reynolds/Getty

National Institutes of Health

Nominee

Francis Collins

Qualifications

Former president Barack Obama nominated Collins to head the NIH in 2009. Former president Donald Trump asked him to stay on in that job in 2017, and Biden has now extended the appointment. Collins was director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute between 1993 and 2008.

Known for

Collins is best known for leading the Human Genome Project, the massive public effort to sequence the human genome. Trained as a physician, he focused his early research on disease-causing genes, and co-discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. Collins was appointed to the White House Coronavirus Task Force in May 2020.

Tenure

NIH director since August 2009; Biden appointment won’t require Senate confirmation.

Brand-new roles:

The people Biden has appointed to science-based positions that didn’t exist before.

US climate czar

Working in the White House, the czar will coordinate efforts with the full suite of federal agencies to advance Biden’s climate agenda in the United States.

Gina McCarthy

Credit: Aurora Rose/Patrick McMullan via Getty

Climate czar

Nominee

Gina McCarthy

Qualifications

McCarthy led the US Environmental Protection Agency under former president Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. She now leads the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group based in New York City.

Known for

McCarthy advanced multiple climate regulations under Obama, including the administration’s flagship Clean Power Plan, designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants at a federal level. However, the plan was blocked by court challenges and ultimately weakened by former president Donald Trump’s administration.

Tenure

Announced 17 December 2020; no Senate confirmation needed.

Climate envoy

Working within the National Security Council, the envoy will coordinate international climate negotiations and actions. The role will be especially important as Biden attempts to make progress on his ambitious climate agenda.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is an advisor to US President-elect Joe Biden

Credit: Mark Makela/Getty

Climate envoy

Nominee

John Kerry

Qualifications

After representing the state of Massachusetts in the US Senate for 18 years, Kerry served as secretary of state under former president Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017.

Known for

Kerry was personally involved in negotiating the 2015 Paris climate agreement. But his future legacy might depend on whether he is able to reintegrate the United States back into the agreement and convince the world that the nation is serious about climate change.

Tenure

Announced 23 November 2020; no Senate confirmation required.

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