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Eric Lander will be Biden’s science adviser, a cabinet-level position for the first time

Chemistry Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and geophysicist Maria Zuber will cochair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

by Andrea Widener
January 19, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 3


Array of photos of Eric Lander, Frances Arnold, Maria Zuber, and Alondra Nelson.
Credit: Credit: Biden-Harris Transition (Lander and Nelson), Caltech (Arnold), Bryce Vickmark (Zuber)
Eric Lander, Frances Arnold, Maria Zuber, and Alondra Nelson

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Broad Institute mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander to serve as the presidential science adviser and to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. For the first time in history, the science adviser will be a cabinet-level position.

“Elevating this role to membership in the President’s Cabinet clearly signals the administration’s intent to involve scientific expertise in every policy discussion,” Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says in a statement.

Photo from press conference where Joe Biden announced his science team choices.
Credit: CNP/AdMedia/Newscom
Joe Biden announcing his choices to lead his science team.

Biden has also chosen Nobel Prize-winning chemical engineer Frances Arnold to cochair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Lander will also serve as cochair of PCAST. The third cochair will be Maria Zuber, a geophysicist and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lander’s deputy in the White House office will be Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. Nelson is known for her research at the intersection of science, technnology, social inequality, and race.

In announcing the appointments, Biden asked his science team to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and inequality, climate change, global competitiveness, and the long-term health of and trust in science. “We’re on the cusp of some of the most remarkable breakthroughs that will fundamentally change our way of life. We can make more progress in the next 10 years than we made in the last 50 years,” Biden said at a Jan. 16 ceremony introducing his team. “But we also face some of the most dire crises in generations, where science is critical to whether we meet this moment of peril with the promise we know that is in reach.”

We need to reestablish the trust of the American people in science.
Frances Arnold,, chemistry Nobel laureate and one of Joe Biden’s picks to cochair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Arnold, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, is excited to play a part in achieving the administration’s goals. “We have to reestablish the importance of science in policymaking, in decision making across the government. We need to reestablish the trust of the American people in science,” Arnold says. “I think that PCAST can play a beneficial role in that.”

Arnold has been working with Biden’s transition team to help identify scientists for roles in the administration. She says her main job now is to help choose PCAST’s additional members and to get to work setting a scientific agenda for the group.

PCAST has traditionally provided important advice directly to the US president, going back to 1990. Outgoing president Donald J. Trump didn’t establish the advisory group for his administration until October 2019, more than 2 years after he took office. Trump took 18 months to choose his own science adviser.

Climate change will clearly be one of PCAST’s most important efforts as science is at the heart of everything from mitigating the effects of climate change to moving to a carbon-free society, Arnold says.


Reviving the damaged reputation of US science abroad and making sure international students want to study in the US is another important goal for Arnold. “The vibrancy of our science enterprise rests on our remarkable ability to pull in the best brains from all over the world,” she says. “Even if they go back to their own countries, we develop collaborations. Even better, some of those best brains stay here and contribute to our economy and to moving science forward.”

Investing in the US scientific workforce is also important, Arnold says. She especially wants to look at ways to support scientists from groups underrepresented in the sciences. “I’m personally dedicated to supporting women, people of color, and everybody who wants to do science,” she says. “We need all those good brains.”

Despite the assault on science during the last 4 years, research funding has held surprisingly steady during the Trump administration, Arnold says, because science has support from both sides of the political aisle. And science could always use more money.

So Arnold wants to focus on fixing some the damage that has been done to science over the last four years, when many government scientists quit. Arnold encourages young people to take those jobs.

“We lost so many good people,” Arnold says. “I’d love to see really good people come back and work in national laboratories and government agencies, knowing that science will be treated with respect.”


This story was originally published on Jan. 15, 2021. It was updated on Jan. 19, 2021, to include additional information, particularly about the appointment of Alondra Nelson as deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.


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