US president-elect Joe Biden has chosen the decorated geneticist Eric Lander as his presidential science adviser and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). If Lander’s appointment is confirmed by the US Senate, he will serve as a member of Biden’s cabinet — a first for this position.
Many scientists have long called for the OSTP director to be raised to a cabinet-level position. “Having science elevated to its rightful place in the administration seems to me a very positive step,” says Harold Varmus, a cancer researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and a former head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). “I think it marks a very important moment in the history of science in the government.”
“It signifies the importance of who will be in the room when decisions are being made,” says Roger Pielke Jr, who studies science policy at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Lander was a key figure in the Human Genome Project — the race to sequence the human genome, which ended in 2003 — and is the president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He will be the first biologist to run the OSTP.
Between 2009 and 2017, he co-chaired the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an elite panel that advises the US president. Among the PCAST reports issued during Lander’s tenure were some dealing with energy, climate change and vaccine response in the face of pandemic influenza.
"This is a marvellous appointment, it’s great to see a life scientist running the OSTP,” says Varmus, who co-chaired PCAST with Lander.
When Biden named Lander as a member of his team on 15 January, he also announced the appointment of a number of other respected scientists to key positions in his administration. “Science will always be at the forefront of my administration — and these world-renowned scientists will ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts, and the truth,” Biden said in a statement.
Nobel laureate Frances Arnold, a bioengineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Maria Zuber, a geophysicist at MIT, will co-chair PCAST under Biden. Alondra Nelson, nominated to be deputy director for science and society at the OSTP, is a social scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who studies genetics, race and other societal issues.
“These are excellent appointments, highly qualified and experienced, and well grounded in science,” Rita Colwell, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland at College Park and a former director of the US National Science Foundation, wrote to Nature in an e-mail.
Biden also announced that geneticist Francis Collins would stay on as head of the NIH. Collins was appointed to lead the biomedical-research agency in 2009 by then-president Barack Obama.
Biden has already established a separate, high-level team to lead the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a team to drive forward his climate agenda. With COVID-19 and climate tasked to other groups, it remains to be seen which science issues Lander and his office will be responsible for, says Pielke. “OSTP always has a challenge in figuring out what policy lanes it plays in,” he says.
The OSTP typically coordinates science policy and priorities across US federal agencies, including organizing how much money the president will ask Congress to allocate for various research areas across US science agencies.
Biden has at least given a hint of what he’d like Lander to work on, however. In a letter to Lander, Biden outlined five key questions he wanted the OSTP to tackle, including how to draw lessons from the pandemic that could inform public-health policy more broadly, and how science and technology breakthroughs could be used to help to address climate change.
Originally trained as a mathematician, Lander is a powerful figure in US science circles and one of the most highly cited researchers in the world. As one of the leaders of the epic race to sequence the human genome, he oversaw the huge centre of automated machines that performed much of the sequencing. In 2016, he was criticized for writing a history of the gene-editing technique CRISPR that emphasized the role of his Broad colleague Feng Zhang and downplayed the role of Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. The Broad Institute was embroiled in a CRISPR patent battle with Berkeley at the time. Charpentier and Doudna went on to win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their pioneering work on CRISPR.
Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated as president on 20 January. Lander is only the fourth person since the OSTP was created, in 1976, to be tapped for the job of leader prior to Inauguration Day, says Pielke. The outgoing OSTP director, meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, wasn’t appointed by President Donald Trump until more than a year and a half into his presidency.
To read more about Biden's picks for science agency heads and advisers, see Nature’s updated guide.