Biden Rounding Out Appointments to Top Science Positions

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Publication date: 
September 8, 2021
Number: 
81

Now nearly eight months into his administration, President Biden has filled out his White House science policy staff and nominated leaders for most top-level positions in federal science agencies.

In filling his administration’s science policy jobs, President Biden has now named nominees for all but a few top positions in the White House and federal agencies. That record roughly matches the pace set by most other presidents of the last half-century and is much faster than President Trump’s historically slow appointment process.

The slate of leaders Biden has picked reflect his administration’s focus on diversity, with women and people of color occupying many key positions. However, he also declined to make pathbreaking selections for the positions of presidential science adviser and NASA administrator, which are two high-profile jobs that have always gone to men.

Many of Biden’s nominees are now in place, while some still require Senate confirmation, including a few who have been waiting several months. Notwithstanding the progress of the appointment process, there are also a number of jobs for which appointees have yet to be named. To keep up to date on the status of positions across the government, consult FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker.

White House science leadership largely in place

Biden announced five days before his inauguration that he had selected geneticist Eric Lander to serve as his science adviser and as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lander is also the first OSTP director to serve as a member of the president’s Cabinet.

Biden has not nominated any “associate directors” for OSTP, which is a title that under statute can be assigned to up to four officials who would require Senate confirmation. However, he has appointed three “deputy directors.” Sociologist Alondra Nelson has a portfolio defined around the intersections of science and society. Marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, a former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, handles matters related to climate and the environment. Jason Matheny, a former director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity, focuses on national security.

OSTP has not indicated whether it expects additional deputy directors to be appointed, though the news site STAT reported in July that Lander is planning a major “wing” for OSTP dedicated to health and the life sciences. It is also unclear whether the deputy directors might be nominated to become associate directors at a later date. In addition, Biden has not indicated whether he intends to appoint a chief technology officer of the U.S., a high-ranking OSTP-based position created by the Obama administration and continued under Trump.

Biden has already named Caltech bioengineer Frances Arnold and MIT planetary geophysicist Maria Zuber as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a body of outside experts that studies issues at the president’s behest and is reconstituted under every new administration. Biden has yet to name the rest of the council, though among previous presidents only President Obama had done so by this point in his administration.

The Biden administration is retaining the National Space Council, an interagency body chaired by the vice president that was revived by the Trump administration after having been dormant since the presidency of George H. W. Bush. To serve as the council’s executive secretary, Vice President Harris has selected Chirag Parikh, an aerospace engineer who has held a variety of space and technology policy positions at intelligence and national security agencies.

Process of filling out agency jobs continues

Among science agencies, Biden has named politicians to lead the Department of Energy and NASA, which are positions that have on other occasions in the past been filled by people with science and engineering backgrounds.

As energy secretary, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm has functioned as a key advocate for Biden’s ambitious clean-energy policies. To guide DOE’s science programs, in April Biden nominated physical chemist Geri Richmond to be under secretary for science and energy and soil scientist Asmeret Asefaw Berhe to direct the Office of Science. Having testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, they are waiting for the committee to approve their nominations so they can be taken up by the full Senate.

Meanwhile, Biden has only begun to name nominees for DOE’s applied energy R&D programs, picking carbon capture policy expert Brad Crabtree to lead the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management just last week.

As a former senator, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has a longstanding interest in space policy and a pre-established relationship with Biden. Biden chose former astronaut Pam Melroy for the role of deputy administrator. The top science jobs at NASA are not presidential appointments and do not typically turn over with a new administration.

While Biden has favored politicians for some agencies, he has picked seasoned scientists and engineers to lead others. Oceanographer Rick Spinrad is the first Senate-confirmed NOAA administrator since the Obama administration and previously served as the agency’s chief scientist and as head of its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. Climate policy expert Jainey Bavishi was recently nominated to be deputy administrator.

The Department of Defense’s under secretary for research and engineering is Heidi Shyu, an engineer and defense industry executive who previously oversaw technology programs for the Army Department. The recently named nominee for deputy under secretary, David Honey, has a background in solid state science and has held a series of senior roles in DOD and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

shyu-tompkins-darpa.jpg

Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu, left, speaks with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Stefanie Tompkins

Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu, left, speaks with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Stefanie Tompkins, who took up her current role in March.

(Image credit – Defense Department)

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-independent agency within DOE, is led by Jill Hruby, who spent decades rising through the staff of Sandia National Labs and ultimately became its director. The nominee to lead the National Institute of Standards and Technology is bioengineer Laurie Locascio, who similarly rose through that agency’s ranks to lead its Material Measurement Lab.

Biden has chosen to retain geneticist Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health, which has by far the largest budget of any civilian science agency. Collins was originally picked for that job by President Obama in 2009 and he now ranks among the longest-serving science agency heads of recent decades.

The director of the National Science Foundation serves for a six-year term and so does not typically turn over with a new presidential administration. Accordingly, the role will continue to be filled by Sethuraman Panchanathan, whom President Trump picked in late 2019. Biden has not so far named a nominee to be NSF’s deputy director, a job that has been vacant since 2014.

Some major roles still vacant

While most presidents have made picks for most of their top-level science policy positions by this point, it is also common for them to leave a handful unfilled for a longer period, and Biden is no exception.

Among civilian agencies with a portfolio in the physical sciences, perhaps the most prominent position without a nominee is the U.S. Geological Survey director. Biden has requested a significant proportional increase in the USGS budget, in large part to bolster efforts in climate science. The agency is also seeking to recover from a loss of scientific talent under the Trump administration. Currently, the agency is led in an acting capacity by geologist and career official Dave Applegate, who ordinarily oversees its research on natural hazards.

The Environmental Protection Agency has lacked a Senate-confirmed head for its Office of Research and Development since the Obama administration, and, like USGS, it is facing a diminished scientific workforce. While EPA Administrator Michael Regan has already reconfigured the agency’s Science Advisory Board to reverse Trump-era changes, Biden has still not picked a nominee for the agency’s top science job, which is currently filled in an acting capacity by cardiologist Wayne Cascio.

At the State Department, Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said he plans to build up departmental expertise in science and technology. However, he has not yet named a science advisor, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. In addition, Monica Medina, Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, has been awaiting Senate confirmation since April. In general, the confirmation of State Department nominees has been slowed by a procedural roadblock set up by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Most controversially, Biden has not nominated anyone to lead the Food and Drug Administration, which is currently led in an acting capacity by Janet Woodcock, a medical researcher and longstanding senior official there. Biden reportedly considered picking Woodcock herself, but faced opposition from senators in his own party. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), in particular, has complained about her role in approving addictive opioid painkillers as well as the agency’s recent decision to approve a drug for Alzheimer’s disease that many experts believe is inefficacious.

As FDA is responsible for approving the use of COVID-19 vaccines, the agency is currently at the center of national attention. Two senior officials recently announced their resignations, reportedly due to disagreements with how the Biden administration is handling recommendations for booster shots. In addition, the Alzheimer’s drug approval has become a serious issue in its own right, attracting detailed scrutiny from congressional committees.

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