Two cheers for science’s Newtonian return under Joe Biden

This week saw such a panoply of US presidential pageantry and policy changes that even jubilant Democrats glued to the news struggled to keep track. So here is an important detail you may have missed.

President Joe Biden named Eric Lander, a globally renowned geneticist, as his chief scientific adviser or head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to use the official unwieldy title. What’s more, Mr Biden elevated the role into a cabinet position for the first time in US history. In plain English, scientific geekery was promoted.

To non-scientists, this might not be as obviously thrilling as seeing Lady Gaga sing the national anthem. But for both symbolic and practical reasons, it matters far more.

For one, the promotion of science is part of Mr Biden’s determined reversal of Donald Trump’s anti-science approach.

This will have major implications for hot-button policy issues such as Covid-19, climate change, the competitive threat of China and regulating Big Tech. If it succeeds, future analysts might come to see Mr Biden’s science push as important to the sweep of history as the poisonous legacy of Mr Trump himself.

To understand why, consider the recent past. Even before Mr Trump took office, he was hostile about “experts” and science. After his inauguration in 2016, he launched a direct war.

The OSTP was left without leadership for nearly two years and its staffing was a fraction of what it was during the Barack Obama years. Entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were eviscerated.

Video: Joe Biden’s inauguration – the view from Capitol Hill | DC Diary

Statistical boffins were humiliated. Mr Trump even considered “scientist” to be such a dirty word that on the 2020 campaign trail he scoffed that “Biden will listen to the scientists”, meaning the phrase as an insult.

The make-up of Congress did not provide much comfort either: the 2016 cohort had only two trained scientists in its ranks, less than its seven radio talk show hosts. No, I am not making this up.

Thankfully though, and as Newton’s third law of motion states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Indeed, Mr Trump’s war against science left scientists so appalled that another political first occurred: a political action committee emerged to back pro-science politicians.

Called 314 Action, a jokey reference to the maths term pi, it has since managed to put more than a dozen pro-science politicians into the 2020 Congress.

The second reason all this matters is the scope of Mr Biden’s approach. He not only gave Mr Lander a five point science plan that deliberately recalled Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping ambition. He also named a sociologist to serve as Mr Lander’s deputy: Alondra Nelson.

Some critics might carp that the appointment of a black female professor smacks of political correctness. But that would miss the point.

Having a sociologist in this position is another first. Ms Nelson — who recently co-led a controversial initiative that attempted, with mixed success, to give social scientists access to Facebook’s vast proprietary data base — is a respected expert on the interface of technology and society. This suggests that the Biden team recognises that science policy cannot be effective unless there is proper appreciation of the social context in which it operates.

The pandemic has clearly shown the value of such an approach. Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the British civil service, recently noted that a playing down of behavioural science is one reason why the UK’s pandemic-fighting policies went wrong. The same was true of the US’s federal coronavirus response last year. A similar approach can also be sensibly applied to issues around social media and artificial intelligence.

It is early days yet, so Mr Biden’s dramatic pro-science moves remain largely symbolic. Nobody can know if they will deliver meaningful and tangible change.

The OSTP faces formidable headwinds. Mr Lander himself is a controversial figure: while highly acclaimed for his role in mapping the human genome, he has a pugnacious style. Mr Trump also shattered the morale and skill set of many government agencies. The US’s fragmented federal structure continues to hamper its pandemic response. Nor has the Biden team revealed how much hard cash it will give science, without which the symbolism could remain just that.

Moreover, Mr Biden’s demands on science policy could contradict themselves. If Big Tech is asked or forced to shrink its huge market power, tech titans will howl that they are being hobbled in their competitive fight with China. So, too, if AI developers face ethical curbs their Chinese rivals do not.

Still, even with these caveats, the symbolism around the OSTP appointments should be cheered. Mr Biden’s science push may also enjoy a groundswell of bipartisan support. Towards the end of the Trump era the proportion of people who said they trusted scientists actually rose from 76 per cent to 86 per cent. While trust was higher among Democrats than Republicans, the difference was modest.

This is cheering. It suggests that talking positively about science might even help foster the bipartisan “unity” that Mr Biden claims to seek. All eyes, then, on those newly promoted and socially aware geeks. 

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