US presidential science adviser and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director Eric Lander resigned Feb. 7, on the heels of reports that he created a toxic work environment.
A White House investigation, first surfaced by Politico, found that Lander had bullied and demeaned OSTP staff. Among them was Rachel Wallace, OSTP deputy counsel and chief operating officer, who was demoted from general counsel by Lander and filed a complaint against him last year, Politico reported.
“It is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, both to men and to women. That was never my intention,” Lander wrote in his resignation letter. His last day will be Feb. 18.
Bipartisan leadership of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for a copy of the report and more details into how the investigation unfolded.
“It is our top priority to ensure that federal science agencies are equipped to meet the challenges facing our nation. A fully functioning OSTP is vital to the success of that effort. The behavior described in the Politico article and acknowledged by OSTP Director Lander is harmful to the workforce of OSTP as they attempt to carry out their responsibilities,” the Feb. 7 letter says.
Biden elevated the science adviser to a cabinet-level position for the first time and chose Lander to fill the role. It is key to many of the administration’s priorities, including addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, as well as reinvigorating Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.
The White House investigation into Lander’s behavior concluded in December, and officials initially defended the decision to keep Lander in his position. “Following the conclusion of the thorough investigation into these actions, senior White House officials conveyed directly to Dr. Lander that his behavior was inappropriate and the corrective actions that were needed,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a Feb. 7 press briefing. The White House planned to monitor Lander’s compliance.
Some of the press questions at the briefing centered on Biden’s pledge on his first day in office that he would fire people who were disrespectful to colleagues, “No ifs, ands, or buts.” In response, Psaki pointed to the White House’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy and said that the investigation and outcome followed that policy.
Later that day, Biden accepted Lander’s resignation. In a subsequent statement, Psaki said Biden expressed gratitude for Lander’s work and that Biden “knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.”
Before Lander resigned, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) uninvited Lander to speak at its annual meeting later this month. “OSTP should be a model for a respectful and positive workplace for the scientific community—not one that further exacerbates these issues,” AAAS said in a statement from its leadership.
Lander, former director of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, has long been a controversial figure. In a history he wrote of CRISPR technology, Lander downplayed the contributions of two women—Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna—who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that same work. He has also praised James Watson, who has a history of sexist and racist comments. The US Senate confirmed Lander to be director of the OSTP despite concerns about his past behavior.
Lander’s deputy at the OSTP is sociologist Alondra Nelson. Lander also co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology with chemist Frances Arnold and geophysicist Maria T. Zuber.