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Eric Lander addressed controversies at Senate confirmation hearing

Nominee to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy apologized for and defended his actions

by Melba Newsome, special to C&EN
May 3, 2021

Photo of Eric Lander sitting and wearing a mask, flanked by two other people who are out of focus.
Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom
Eric Lander (center) is Joe Biden's nominee for presidential science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

US president Joe Biden’s decision to elevate the role of presidential science adviser to Cabinet level fulfills his campaign promise to return science to a place of prominence in government. In many ways, his choice of Broad Institute mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander to fill that position and lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was an obvious one.

Lander, a geneticist and molecular biologist, earned fame for his role in the international Human Genome Project. He is lauded for his ability to make science both interesting and understandable, and he co-chaired the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under former president Barack Obama.

But in recent years, critics have charged Lander with being dismissive or insensitive to women and people of color, most notably by elevating the contributions of a male colleague over the Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR genome editing research of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.

When the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation began Lander’s April 29th confirmation hearing for OSTP director, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) wasted no time getting to the controversies. “You have been criticized for downplaying the contributions of the female Nobel laureates I just mentioned, for toasting a racist misogynistic antisemite [James Watson], and for attending lunch meetings with the late disgraced Jeffrey Epstein,” Duckworth said.

No doubt, Lander expected that line of questioning and was well prepared to respond. He admitted error for toasting James Watson, said any downplaying of Doudna and Charpentier’s roles in developing CRISPR technology was inadvertent, and emphasized that his connection to Epstein was passing. “The sum total of my interactions was that I met him briefly at two events within the span of 3 weeks in the spring of 2012,” Lander said.

Lander also touted his strong support of women in science. He said he would work to increase the number of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM careers by 50% and promised to appoint a historically diverse slate of people to OSTP and PCAST.

Lander used every opportunity to defend Biden’s proposals, particularly on renewable energy, and bolster his commitment to making science more diverse and more responsive to challenges such as disease cures and climate change.

If the committee votes to confirm Lander, he then faces a vote before the full Senate.



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