Expectations are high for geneticist Eric Lander, who was sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on 2 June, after a months-long confirmation process. In a first for any US president, Joe Biden elevated the position of OSTP director to his cabinet, potentially granting Lander more access and influence than any science adviser before him.
Lander has a decades-long reputation as a hard-charging and competitive leader. But he’s also drawn criticism for some public moves: in 2016, he wrote a history of CRISPR gene-editing technology that critics said diminished the foundational contributions of two women — Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin — who would later win a Nobel prize for their work. “I made a mistake, and when I make a mistake, I own it and try to do better,” Lander told lawmakers at an April hearing considering his nomination. At that hearing, lawmakers also scrutinized two events he attended at which sex offender and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was also a guest. Lander insisted that these were one-off donor events.
Nature spoke to Lander on his first day in office about his goals for the OSTP, criticisms of him, and some of the weighty priorities — such as addressing how to prepare for the next pandemic — that Biden has tasked him with.
Has President Biden asked for your advice yet?
Yes, but I don’t want to elaborate, because the confidence of conversations with presidents is to be respected.
What does being part of the president’s cabinet mean for you on a day-to-day basis?
Symbolically, I think it is a statement about the centrality of science and technology to many, many of the opportunities and challenges that are facing the United States. Being a member of the cabinet has already meant that there are direct discussions between myself and other members of the cabinet. There is a weekly Zoom call that involves cabinet members. We’re getting to interact on a regular basis, so I’ve already had an opportunity to build relationships.
Staffing at the OSTP fell under former president Donald Trump to one-quarter of its previous level. Where does it stand now?
I was sworn in this morning — I don’t actually know the precise number. But what I can say is the OSTP is hiring right now, and growing.
What does the United States need to do to prevent the next pandemic?
We cannot be self-satisfied because we were able to produce a vaccine in under a year and get it approved. We should take one brief victory lap for doing that, and then we’ve got to say: we’ve got to do better next time. Can we have a solution for any of the 25 families of human viruses? Can we spin up even more rapid diagnostics? Can we spin up global surveillance, such as an early-warning system? There are a lot of discussions that will emerge in the coming weeks and months into a set of pretty bold goals for making sure we never again see infectious disease turn into a pandemic like this. And then we’re going to have to hold our feet to the fire. The unforgivable thing would be to simply forget about this problem and move on, because there will be more infectious agents, more viruses with pandemic potential. It’s not an if, it’s a when.
The Trump administration gutted government science offices and eroded science policies. Can science recover?
I think science is so essential to the future of the nation and the world that, no matter what, science not only has to be bouncing back, but also going much further than ever before.
Something that is core to science is dissent. I think a really important question is how to protect the ability for scientists who have a divergent point of view to be able to express that in a constructive way, including scientists who might have a divergent view from political appointees. I think we need to protect those sorts of things because it’s the heart of the scientific method. It’s about evidence, not authority.
The OSTP is holding meetings about how to protect scientific integrity. How’s that going?
I just got sworn in this morning. But I have gotten reports that people are really fired up about the opportunity to think deeply about finding ways, over the long term, to really ingrain and protect scientific integrity. It’s crucial to science being able to make a difference for policy.
Regarding your meetings with Jeffrey Epstein, did he fund or offer to fund your work?
Jeffrey Epstein is an abhorrent person. I had no relationship with him. I was at two Harvard donor events and met him briefly, that’s it. Never saw him again. There were two events a decade ago, a few weeks apart. He never offered to fund my work or anything like that.
Your CRISPR essay and other actions have prompted worries that you’re unfit for this office. How do you respond?
For 35 years, I have been doing a tremendous amount around the values of lifting up people and building institutions that are broadly inclusive. Those are where my values are, and that is really where my work is.
Democratic senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state says you’ve agreed that workforce diversity will be the ‘first task’ for the OSTP. What’s the plan?
The only goal we should be aiming for is to have parity. We’re not going to succeed unless we have everybody at the lab bench. One of the early things the OSTP will be doing is reaching out to many groups who have experience with different types of solutions. I think the first thing to do is talk to the people who are most knowledgeable, most affected — and bring together that conversation. I’m working with Alondra Nelson, who is the first director ever of [the OSTP’s] division of science and society. She and I have talked a lot about bringing people who are on the front lines of these issues together and then fashioning real solutions.
You’ve said that all Americans must be able to participate in and benefit from science. What’s the biggest challenge to that?
Let’s start with the fact that science has always been unwelcoming to women and people of colour. This is a major priority — to make sure that we really eliminate that. There are large parts of the country that really don’t have a science high school or a science industry — where somebody who’s really interested in science can’t easily get involved. So there’s unwelcoming and there’s inaccessible. We’ve got to overcome both of those barriers.
In academia, we should even ask questions about the system of advising. It’s a little bit of a medieval system, where you apprentice yourself to a single person. Maybe [more] welcoming communities have multiple mentors who are looking after people in different ways.
Scientists say that measures taken by the US government against research espionage have damaged scientific partnerships, especially with China. How will you address this?
It’s not acceptable if countries engage in industrial espionage to take intellectual property. I think we all agree on that. The question is, how do you manage that in a way that is effective — addresses the problem, but doesn’t create huge burdens, doesn’t create a sense of turning away international collaboration and doesn’t promote racism and anti-Asian feelings? We have to balance two things: we have to get research security right, and we have to make sure we really take advantage of the full power of international scientific collaboration and the fact that so many great people want to come to the United States [to work and study]. We can get those things right with clear guidance about disclosure of information. And that’s certainly going to be a role for this office — to look after both sides of that equation.
How will the OSTP coordinate research-security policies among US agencies, to ensure that scientists disclose foreign ties in their funding applications?
The OSTP is charged with making sure this is implemented in a way that’s effective and non-burdensome. That’s the next piece of work that’s got to be done. What we don’t want to do is produce a thicket of rules that everybody has to go interpret in different ways. I very much agree with everybody who wants clarity, because, frankly, clarity is also what produces the best security. I think most people just want to do the right thing, and they want to have a simple path to do the right thing.
Nature 594, 311 (2021)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.