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Senate Holds Nomination Hearing for Top White House Science Advisor

Dr. Eric S. Lander, PhD

The U.S Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met on April 29th to discuss and question Dr. Eric Lander, President Biden’s nominee for Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), recently elevated to a cabinet-level post. Dr. Lander is a geneticist, molecular biologist, and mathematician. He was a principal leader of the international Human Genome Project and was a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, and a former member of the Whitehead Institute. Dr. Lander is also the founding director of the Broad Institute and co-chaired President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Much of the hearing focused on diversity in STEM. Both Senator Duckworth (D-IL), chairing the hearing, and Ranking Member Wicker (R-MS) commented on the importance of broadening participation in STEM and raised concerns about Dr. Lander’s commitment to this issue. Senators Warren and Markey of Massachusetts introduced the nominee, highlighting his work on diversity and inclusion at the Broad Institute. Lander explained his efforts, which helped make the organization more representative than STEM fields generally, though he acknowledged further room for improvement in areas such as computer science. Dr. Lander emphasized that inclusion would be a major goal of his at OSTP if confirmed. He assured the Committee that, under his leadership, the OSTP staff will “look like America” and the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will be the most diverse in history. Further, he would put in place an initiative to “increase the numbers of women and underrepresented people in the science and technology professions by 50 percent”, adding that women are the majority of the staff at the Broad Institute.

In response to questioning, Lander also painted a highly collaborative vision for OSTP. He believes in open science and the need to work inclusively across fields, geography, and demographic groups to ensure that the brightest minds are working on solutions to society’s major challenges. He also extended this beyond academia, noting the importance of public-private partnerships to get the most out of our investments in science. He spoke of how basic research, including his work on sequencing the human genome, has produced billions of dollars in economic growth, and aided in the understanding of countless diseases and illnesses.

“I’ve learned that good science requires a healthy dose of humility. Scientists’ favorite ideas are often wrong, mine included. We constantly need to be open to different perspectives — from scientists, non-scientists, policymakers.”

Senators pointedly questioned Lander on past meetings with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and asked why he failed to provide Broad Institute financial documents that the committee had requested in advance of this hearing. He asserted that he only briefly crossed paths with Epstein at New York City fundraisers, and the Broad Institute never received donations from him. Dr. Lander committed to sharing all requested information with the committee.

Despite the concerns they raised, Members of the Committee generally expressed support for Dr. Lander. They were happy to hear him commit to a bipartisan and inclusive approach at OSTP, and his openness to listening to new ideas wherever they may come from. Senators on both sides of the aisle hailed his past accomplishments and indicated they would be voting in favor of his nomination.

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