During the height of the presidential election last October, President Trump warned voters that if Joe Biden was elected president, he would “listen to the scientists.” Now, as the president-elect is about to be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, Biden appears to be leaning into this attack line.
On Friday, the incoming Biden administration announced that it would name Eric Lander to become director of the Office of Science Technology and Policy. As is customary in this role, Lander will also serve as chief “science advisor” to the president. In addition, Biden announced that he is making the science advisor a cabinet-level position. This is a first for this role.
“Science will always be at the forefront of my administration—and these world-renowned scientists will ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts, and the truth,” President-elect Biden said in a news release announcing the appointments.
A geneticist with a background in mathematics, Lander was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project and is a professor of biology at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. From 2009 to 2017, he served as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for President Obama. Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council, will serve as the office’s deputy director for Science and Society.
The Biden announcement also named co-chairs for the presidential council of advisors, who inform the president on public policy related to a broad segment of science and technology issues. The council will be led by Maria Zuber, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been involved in more than half a dozen NASA planetary missions, and Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer and Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology.
Dr. Francis Collins will continue serving in his role as Director of the National Institutes of Health.
The Biden administration’s naming of a science team early on suggests it will prioritize science and evidence-based decision making toward policy. By contrast, after President Trump came into the White House in January 2017, the position of director of the Office of Science Technology and Policy was left vacant for nearly two years. Over that time, its staffing level dwindled. Eventually, in August 2018, the Trump administration nominated Oklahoma research meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier—who was respected in the scientific community—to fill the post. He formally took office in January, 2019.
The naming of science and technology leadership is a key step toward filling out other roles in the Biden administration, including the administrator of NASA. An announcement of a replacement for Jim Bridenstine, who will resign on January 20 when President Trump leaves office, may come within the next few weeks.