When President Biden tapped Eric Lander as White House science adviser in January 2021, he tasked the renowned genomics researcher with “reinvigorating” American science.
Following Lander’s stunning resignation on Monday evening, however, the question is no longer whether he’ll reinvigorate the U.S. scientific enterprise. It’s whether he’s derailed it.
In a resignation letter, Lander apologized to White House science staff for the workplace-abuse scandal that caused his downfall, admitting he “caused hurt to past and present colleagues for the way in which I have spoken to them.”
In interviews with STAT, White House aides and outside research experts worried that the scandal will delay or undercut several of the administration’s key scientific priorities: appointing a new biomedical research chief; relaunching the “Cancer Moonshot”; retooling federal pandemic preparedness; and creating a new agency geared toward biomedical breakthroughs.
“The questions should be around small-molecule antivirals, around climate change, not around the culture of the office,” said Sudip Parikh, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “That’s a huge distraction, and it overshadows a lot of the really important work that’s ongoing.”
The Biden administration, however, pushed back on the characterization that its science agenda could be in jeopardy.
“You’re talking about things that are both personal and policy priorities for the President — and which have a great deal of groundwork already laid,” an Office of Science and Technology Policy official said in a statement before the resignation.
The resignation is a major blow to the Biden administration’s broader scientific agenda, which is already floundering. The National Institutes of Health is currently without a director. Even Senate Democrats have yet to rally behind Robert Califf, Biden’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration. Increasingly, there are questions about whether health secretary Xavier Becerra is a player in either process, or in the federal pandemic response.
And Lander was an uncommonly central player in Biden’s life sciences ambitions. His appointment in itself was historic: He is the first White House science adviser to sit in the president’s Cabinet; the first from a life sciences background; and the first to create an entire wing of OSTP devoted to biology, medicine, and human health.
Politico first reported that Lander faced an internal investigation into workplace abuse.
This is not the first scandal surrounding Lander. He’s widely known in the scientific community to be abrasive and at times condescending, though no public reports of active verbal abuse had ever emerged prior to this week.
In the wake of the latest controversy, however, a number of academics and lawmakers moved to distance themselves from Lander, or called for his dismissal outright. AAAS disinvited Lander from its annual meeting on Monday, saying in a statement: “Unfortunately, toxic behavioral issues still make their way into the STEM community where they stifle participation and innovation.”
Minutes later, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate’s science committee, issued a statement saying Lander “should not continue to serve in the administration.”
“The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening with gratitude for his work at OSTP on the pandemic, the Cancer Moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday evening. “He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.”
In interviews with STAT, researchers and White House aides were split as to how Lander’s ouster will impact the Biden administration’s scientific work.
Some argued the work will continue unabated regardless of Lander’s departure in the administration. The Cancer Moonshot in particular is largely isolated from Lander, multiple aides argued. Its director, Danielle Carnival, is a longtime Biden aide thought to have the ear of the president, and Lander’s resignation could only serve to empower her more. Plus, as currently structured, Biden’s latest effort does not require support from Congress — and some funding from the original moonshot in 2016 remains available as well.
The fate of ARPA-H is perhaps more uncertain, largely because it requires Congress to pass authorizing language and funding for the new agency. To date, lawmakers have offered less than half of the money the Biden administration originally requested for the new agency, and have been beset by squabbles over whether the new agency should exist independently, or as a unit within NIH. It’s also not clear what bill Congress could attach it to to ensure its passage by the end of the year.
Still, key players in D.C. research advocacy remain optimistic, largely because the ARPA-H proposal enjoys support from both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
“ARPA-H and the Cancer Moonshot serve the best interests of Americans,” Ellie Dehoney, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the advocacy group Research!America, said in a statement. “We believe the administration and Congress will work on a bipartisan basis to advance both initiatives.”
Others, though, warned that the White House has little margin for error. Biden has already been in office for a year, and with midterm elections looming and Republicans heavily favored to regain control on Capitol Hill, many aides view the end of 2022 as a firm deadline for achieving anything that requires lawmaker support.
“If we somehow miss this moment, if we somehow don’t get those pieces of legislation and those initiatives off the ground, that moment will pass,” Parikh said. “There’s a very small window. So I do worry about distractions like this, and the fact that there are incredible minds inside the OSTP, and this overshadows their work.”