Biden Elevates Science Advisor to Cabinet-Level Job

Dan Rohlf

Feb. 22, 2021

As the U.S. Senate considers President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees, one stands out as much for the position he was appointed to as for his impressive qualifications.

Two days before his inauguration, Biden announced that he planned to elevate the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), often referred to as the president’s science advisor, to Cabinet rank. The move underlines Biden’s break with the previous administration’s de-emphasis and politicization of science, which downplayed climate change, sought to slash climate-related research spending, and crafted rules designed to limit the influence of science in agency decisionmaking.

Created by Congress in 1976 to help the president and White House staff steer the country in an increasingly complex world, OSTP leads cross-government efforts to incorporate scientific and technological developments into policy and budgetary decisions. During the Trump administration, OSTP staff dropped by two-thirds, and its director position remained vacant for over two years.

Biden tapped geneticist Eric Lander, who holds a doctorate in mathematics, to lead OSTP into new prominence. Lander is president and founding director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, which uses genomics to advance human health, and has been a leader in mapping the human genome and using the results to fight disease.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lander must quickly capitalize on his office’s elevated status by emphasizing science and transparency in decisionmaking throughout the executive branch. Here are four things he should get started on immediately:

  1. Make the United States a leader in fighting climate change. As Biden made clear in his January 27 order on tackling the climate crisis, the new administration has completely reversed course from Trump’s emphasis on fossil fuels and dismissal of climate change as a hoax. Lander should help lead the federal government's push for an aggressive international strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ahead of a key meeting in November with countries that have signed the Paris Agreement. He should also assist the White House in putting together a “nationally determined contribution” for the United States that lays out our country’s commitment to significantly reduce our emissions.

  2. Protect agencies’ science budgets and emphasize scientific research. The previous administration consistently sought deep cuts in most science programs, though Congress wisely ignored most of these requests and restored funding for science and research. Nevertheless, some important science offices closed. Lander and OSTP should help design budget requests that build the federal government’s basic science and research programs, with a particular focus on key challenges such as adapting to climate change and preventing new pandemics.

  3. Incorporate science and climate considerations into federal environmental analyses and policies. An urgent task facing the Biden administration is rewriting regulations governing the environmental impact assessment process under the National Environmental Policy Act, which Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) gutted in 2020. Lander and OSTP should work with CEQ to ensure that new rules require federal agencies to employ the best available science and consider the impacts of their decisions on climate when they prepare Environmental Impact Statements and related assessments.

  4. Rebuild the federal government’s science workforce and recruit well-qualified scientists for agency advisory bodies. Huge numbers of scientists were pushed out or left federal agencies in disgust during the Trump years. The former administration fired hundreds of respected scientists from agency advisory boards and committees — often replacing them with people linked to the industries those agencies were supposed to regulate — or simply eliminated these advisory bodies altogether. Lander should assist the White House in rebuilding this crucial scientific expertise within the federal government, using his deep ties with academia and professional science organizations to once again make public service a respected and desired path for highly qualified — and objective — scientists.

These priorities will allow science to start making a comeback in the federal government after four years of relentless assault, and Biden’s elevation of the OSTP director to Cabinet status is a hopeful sign that facts will once again matter to the administration. Lander has the credentials and connections to restore science as a cornerstone of federal policymaking — a big but essential task ahead.

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Center for Progressive Reform’s Policy for a Just America initiative. Learn more on CPR’s website.

Eric Lander photo by Casey Atkins Photography, courtesy of Broad Institute.

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