Eric Lander, PhD, resigned last night as President Joe Biden’s science advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, days after confirming published news reports by acknowledging he spoke to staffers in “a disrespectful or demeaning way.”
“It is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women. That was never my intention, Nonetheless it is my fault and my responsibility. I will take this lesson forward,” Lander stated in his resignation letter to Biden.
The resignation came after a two-month internal White House investigation found credible evidence that Lander engaged in “bullying” toward his then-general counsel, Rachel Wallace, as well as “credible evidence of disrespectful interactions with staff by Dr. Lander and OSTP leadership,” according to a White House briefing on the investigation recorded last month and first reported by Politico.
During that investigation, 14 current and former staff members at OSTP staffers said Lander often bullied, cut off and dismissed subordinates, creating what they termed a toxic work environment that included the belittling and demeaning of women.
In interviews by Politico, one unnamed OSTP staffer said that Lander “has a bit of Jekyll and Hyde personality. If he’s in a meeting with external people, he’s positive and ebullient, even. It’s behind closed doors that he changes”—while another unnamed OSTP staff said: “The Joe Biden I voted for would never knowingly empower an aggressor like Lander who openly targets women by publicly humiliating, infantilizing and intimidating them into submission.”
Speculation arose online last night about possible successors to Lander, including Frances Arnold, PhD, Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry and director of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)’s Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center. Arnold is now co-chair of the President’s Commission on Science and Technology (PCAST).
A successor to Lander would require confirmation by the U.S. Senate since the position of chief science advisor to the president has been elevated to Cabinet-level status.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated last night: “The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter [Monday] evening, with gratitude for his work at OSTP on the pandemic, the cancer moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities. He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.”
The statement marked a reversal from earlier White House comments yesterday stating that Lander would remain in office following “corrective action” that was to include closer scrutiny of Lander’s behavior and actions designed to improve the workplace culture at OSTP.
“The president has been crystal clear with all of us about his high expectations of how he and his staff should be creating a respectful work environment,” Psaki said earlier Monday.
“I will fire you on the spot”
Upon taking office last year, Biden insisted that staff members and appointees were “entitled to be treated with decency and dignity,”—and sent a blunt message to any staffer violating that policy: “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect… I promise you I will fire you on the spot.”
Lander apologized for his actions Friday evening in a note to all OSTP staff sent after his top aides became aware that Politico knew of the investigation of Lander.
“It’s my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It’s clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility. I have spoken to colleagues within OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning way,” Lander wrote in his apology. “I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them.”
Lander, a geneticist, molecular biologist, and mathematician who served as a principal leader of the international Human Genome Project, was the first science advisor to have been elevated to membership in the President’s Cabinet.
Lander is former President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and served as co-chair of PCAST during the administration of Barack Obama, when Biden served as vice president.
As a result of Lander’s behavior, the American Association for the Advancement of Science disinvited him from its annual meeting next week.
“Unfortunately, toxic behavioral issues still make their way into the STEM community where they stifle participation and innovation. OSTP should be a model for a respectful and positive workplace for the scientific community—not one that further exacerbates these issues,” AAAS declared in a statement released by CEO Sudip Parikh, Chair of the Board Claire Fraser, President Susan Amara, and President-elect Gilda Barabino.