The number of changes being implemented by the new administration in the White House are likely too many to count. And while many are significant, one strikes a chord with the scientific community in a very meaningful way. In the days leading up to his inauguration, President Biden made it clear that science is a priority. He has backed that up with several recent announcements.
First, President Biden named Eric Lander, PhD, the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to the position of White House Science Advisor and will serve as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In addition, President Biden is designating the Presidential Science Advisor as a member of the Cabinet for the first time in history.
Lander was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project and has been a pioneer in the field of genomic medicine. During the Obama Administration, he served as external Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Lander will be the first life scientist to serve as Presidential Science Advisor.
“Our country stands at the most consequential moment for science and technology since World War II. How we respond will shape our future for the rest of this century,” Lander said. “President-elect Biden understands the central role of science and technology, and I am deeply honored to have the chance to serve the nation.”
“In its 16 years, the Broad has become one of the most unique institutions in the biomedical ecosystem,” said Shirley M. Tilghman, professor of molecular biology and public policy and president emerita of Princeton University, and a member of the Broad Institute Board of Directors. “As both an innovator and an inspired scientific leader, Eric is an ideal choice to advise the President on integrating scientific knowledge into sound public policy and empowering the next generation of scientific leadership in this country.”
The job comes with a long list of challenges. President Biden described what Lander’s priorities should be in his appointment letter.
President Biden wrote, “Today, I am tasking you and your colleagues with five [specific questions]. My hope is that you, working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public, will make recommendations to our administration on the general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt to ensure that our nation can continue to harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people.”
The five questions are:
- What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible—to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?
- How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change—propelling market-driven change, jump-starting economic growth, improving health, and growing jobs, especially in communities that have been left behind?
- How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?
- How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?
- How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?
President Biden added that, “they are big questions, to be sure, but not as big as America’s capacity to address them.”
It may be time for Lander to embrace a line from the movie The Martian that he cited recently in an article he wrote for The Boston Globe. He wrote: “I’m reminded of Matt Damon’s character in the film ‘The Martian.’ Stranded on Mars and knowing that no one is coming to the rescue any time soon, he declares: ‘In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.’”
The science dream team
To support the infusion of science into the administration, President Biden appointed other notable scientists to the OSTP. Frances H. Arnold, PhD, professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering, and biochemistry at Caltech and Maria Zuber, PhD, vice president for research at MIT, will serve as the external Co-Chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
Arnold, known for the discovery of the directed evolution of enzymes, was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Zuber, an expert in geophysics and planetary science, is the first woman to lead a NASA spacecraft mission and has chaired the National Science Board. They are the first women to serve as co-chairs of PCAST.
Alondra Nelson, PhD, president of the Social Science Research Council and the Harold F. Linder professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, will serve as OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society.
Kei Koizumi, one of the nation’s leading experts on the federal science budget, will serve as OSTP Chief of Staff. Lastly, Narda Jones, who will serve as Legislative Affairs Director, was Senior Technology Policy Advisor and Counsel for the Democratic staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Wasting no time
Not only has President Biden assembled an impressive team, he has also made a few scientific strides on his own within the first few hours of his presidency. Only hours after being sworn in, the President signed an Executive Order for a “100 Days Masking Challenge” asking Americans to wear masks for 100 days and requiring masks in federal buildings, on federal lands, and by government contractors. A second executive order halts the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), and places Anthony Fauci, MD, in the position of head of the delegation to the WHO. Lastly, he created the Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response and Counselor to the President, a position that will be filled by Jeff Zients, a DC businessman who worked in the Obama administration. The executive order also includes steps to organize activities of the Federal Government to combat COVID-19 and prepare for future biological and pandemic threats.
Given the number of announcements over the past week, and the pace at which the President is moving on science-related issues, it appears that Matt Damon and Eric Lander are not the only ones who are going to “science the shit” out of the next four years.