OASHINGTON — When President Biden hired Eric Lander as White House science adviser in January 2021, he tasked the famed genomics researcher with “invigorating” American science.
Following Lander’s resounding resignation on Monday night, the question is no longer whether he will reinvigorate America’s scientific enterprise. That’s if he derailed it.
Lander resigned after an apology from all staff for abusive behavior in the workplace, which Politico first reported. In an email, Lander admitted to speaking in a “disrespectful and demeaning manner,” acknowledging that he had failed to set a “respectful tone” in the office and that his actions reflected poorly on the administration.
In interviews with STAT, White House aides and outside research experts feared the scandal could delay or undermine several of the administration’s top science priorities: appointing a new chief of biomedical research; revive the “Cancer Moonshot”; retooling federal pandemic preparedness; and the creation of a new agency focused on biomedical breakthroughs.
“The questions should be about small molecule antivirals, about climate change, not about office culture,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s a huge distraction, and it overshadows a lot of the really important work that’s going on.”
The Biden administration, however, pushed back on the characterization that its science agenda might be in jeopardy.
“You are talking about things that are both personal and political priorities for the president – and already have a lot of groundwork to do,” an OSTP official said in a statement before the resignation.
The resignation is a blow to the Biden administration’s broader science 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 head the Food and Drug Administration. There are growing questions about whether Health Secretary Xavier Becerra is a player in either process or the federal response to the pandemic.
And Lander was an unusually central player in Biden’s life science ambitions. His appointment itself was historic: he is the first White House science adviser to serve in the president’s cabinet; the first to come from a background in the life sciences and the first to create an entire wing of the OSTP devoted to biology, medicine and human health.
This is not the first scandal surrounding Lander. He is widely known in the scientific community for being abrasive and sometimes condescending, although no public reports of active verbal abuse have ever been published until this week.
In the wake of the latest controversy, however, a number of academics and lawmakers have distanced themselves from Lander or called for his outright dismissal. The AAAS disinvited Lander from its annual meeting on Monday, saying in a statement, “Unfortunately, toxic behavior issues continue to 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 Science Committee, released a statement saying Lander “should not continue to serve in the administration.”
“The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s letter of resignation tonight with gratitude for his work at OSTP on the pandemic, Cancer Moonshot, climate change and other key priorities,” the press secretary said. of the White House, Jen Psaki, in a press release Monday evening. “He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years to come.”
In interviews with STAT, researchers and White House aides were divided on the impact of Lander’s ouster on the scientific work of the Biden administration.
Some have argued that the work will continue unabated regardless of Lander’s departure from the administration. The Cancer Moonshot in particular is largely isolated from Lander, several aides argued. Its director, Danielle Carnival, is a longtime Biden aide who reportedly has the president’s ear, and Lander’s resignation could only give her more power. Moreover, as currently structured, Biden’s latest effort does not require congressional support — and some of the funding for the original Moonshot in 2016 also remains available.
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 plagued with wrangling over whether the new agency should exist independently or as a unit within the NIH. It’s also unclear what bill Congress might tie it to to ensure its passage by the end of the year.
Still, key advocates for DC’s research remain optimistic, in large part because the ARPA-H proposal has the support of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
“ARPA-H and the Cancer Moonshot serve the best interests of Americans,” said Ellie Dehoney, vice president of research and policy at advocacy group Research! America, in a statement. “We believe the administration and Congress will work on a bipartisan basis to move both initiatives forward.”
Others, however, warned the White House had little room for error. Biden has already been in office for a year, and with the midterm elections looming and Republicans heavily favored to regain control of Capitol Hill, many aides see the end of 2022 as a firm deadline to achieve everything. which requires the support of the legislator.
“If we somehow miss this moment, if we fail to get these laws and initiatives off the ground, this moment will pass,” Parikh said. “There is a very small window. So I worry about distractions like this, and the fact that there are amazing minds inside the OSTP, and it overshadows their work.