The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg told us, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Yet high-level decision-makers in the U.S. federal government have continued to be overwhelmingly white and male, especially when it comes to science leadership positions. From a historic lack of federal leadership on environmental justice to health disparities born of systemic racism and economic inequality, science policy reflects and amplifies inequities within science. The Biden administration has a huge opportunity to change the face of scientific decision-making, particularly amidst a global pandemic, calls for racial justice from research institutions across the country, and the looming impacts of climate change.
We applaud the return of science back to the White House after four years of unprecedented damage. We celebrate the nomination of leaders like Deb Haaland—a Native American woman chosen to lead the Department of the Interior, which is largely responsible for managing tribal land—and Michael Regan—a leader with experience in environmental justice tapped to run the Environmental Protection Agency. We have cheered the nominations of people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in the wake of an administration that systematically chipped away at their rights and protections. Nominations that reflect America’s diversity of backgrounds and experiences should be the norm. That we are now celebrating so many firsts speaks to how far we still have to go to make society equitable and just.
Despite this slate of diverse leadership, we can’t help but notice that the recently announced nomination of presidential science advisor Eric Lander fails to meet the moment. His nomination does not fill us with hope that he will shepherd the kind of transformation in science we need if we are to ensure science delivers equity and justice for all. We had high hopes that the Biden administration would continue its pattern of bold nominations when envisioning a newly elevated cabinet position of science advisor. There was certainly no shortage of options, with a deep bench of qualified women and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) whose expertise and experience can transform the place of science as a tool for justice.
Lander, an MIT geneticist and former co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)—exemplifies the status quo. With this nomination, the opportunity to finally break the long lineage of white male science advisors has been missed. This was a chance to substantively address historical inequalities and transform harmful stereotypes by appointing someone with new perspectives into the top science advisor role. Despite a long list of supremely qualified people that could have held this position and inspired a whole new generation of scientists, the glass ceiling in American science remains intact.
While we can celebrate the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to science, we must recognize that Lander has a reputation among some scientists for being controversial, and colleagues have criticized him for his “ego without end.” We cannot forget that in 2016, Lander wrote a widely criticized history of the revolutionary technology CRISPR, dubbed the “Heroes of CRISPR,” that erased the contributions of two women colleagues. This conspicuous exclusion is emblematic of the forces in science that hold back women and scientists of color from attaining the level of prominence he enjoys.
These are hardly contributions that could be omitted by mistake. In 2020, those scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work, solidifying their place in history.
In 2018, Lander was pressured to publicly apologize for making a gross error in judgement—and in leadership—by toasting James Watson, who was forced to step down from leading Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after a long history of racist and sexist comments, and who himself failed to acknowledge the contributions of Rosalind Franklin.
To ensure that we truly build back better—rather than simply building back the same science complete with all the inequities and prejudices that have enabled science’s most egregious wrongs—we must hold the incoming Biden administration to a higher standard.
President Biden has made clear his desire for a progressive science agenda for Lander and his team to execute. To that, we add our own expectations for Eric Lander, should he be successfully appointed:
- Build a diverse and inclusive OSTP and PCAST. Solicit the perspectives of a diversity of experts, not just the “recognized experts” that reflect the deeply ingrained systems of racism and gender bias that are alive and well in science.
- “Listen to (all of) the scientists.” Early in the campaign, President Biden vowed to listen to the scientists, and you will play a key role in ensuring that happens. Science expertise is varied, and we cannot know everything. It is important to recognize the limits of your expertise on climate change, environmental justice and many other areas the administration has named as priorities. It is crucial to approach this position with due humility and listen to experts in fields where you lack deep expertise.
- Listen to the needs of those most affected and neglected by science. Americans have not enjoyed the benefits of science equally, and in some cases have been harmed by it. OSTP must acknowledge the long history of harm science has perpetuated and take steps to listen and learn from those most impacted by the science-policy decisions you’ll now be making.
- Assemble a cross-agency task force under OSTP. To address the disproportionate harm communities of color have experienced under the banner of “science” and “progress” requires transgovernmental expertise in areas from environmental justice to public health. A not-exhaustive list of topics includes COVID mortality, maternal mortality, disproportionate contributions to and impacts of pollution, redlining and highway placement, persisting academic institutional damage done by eugenics, and non-consensual medical experimentation and sterilization.
To pursue this agenda, the Biden-Harris team has equipped Lander with some of the greatest minds leading in science and society. The OSTP deputy director for science and society, Alondra Nelson, is a social scientist and distinguished scholar of race and social inequalities. She is one of the world’s most respected experts on the history of science, medicine and technology, and she wrote a book about the history of grassroots organizing around medical rights for civil and human rights. Maria Zuber and Francis H. Arnold will serve as co-chairs of the PCAST. I
n 2018, Arnold became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and was the first woman to be nominated to all three National Academies (Science, Engineering, Medicine). She has also demonstrated her commitment to scientific integrity, retracting a paper she had published when evidence of its flaws came to light. Zuber is the vice president for research at MIT, leads MIT’s Climate Action Plan, is the first woman to lead a science department at MIT and the first woman to lead a NASA mission.
Beyond the immediate White House team of science advisors, there are innumerable scientific institutions and organizations ready to help the Biden administration truly build science back better. Our own organization has built a directory of women and gender minority experts, ready to lend their insights to shaping the future of global science policy, developed policy briefs to support parents in science and created a fellowship program to support women of color leading in science and justice. From grassroots environmental justice groups to organizations focused on equitable access to science to others still who are elevating a new generation of science leaders, there are many groups and individuals ready to help the administration implement its aspirations on science, equity and justice.
If we want to make meaningful scientific progress as we advance racial and gender equity, we must continue holding our leaders accountable for realizing that vision. As the Biden administration brings science to the table—we cannot overlook who still isn’t.