Eric Lander Takes Helm at OSTP

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Publication date: 
June 1, 2021
Number: 
50

The Senate has confirmed Eric Lander as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lander is the 11th person to hold the job since Congress created it in 1976 and the first biologist.

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Portrait of Eric Lander

Image credit – Casey Atkins Photography, courtesy of Broad Institute

Geneticist Eric Lander was confirmed as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on May 28. The Senate squeezed the confirmation in by voice vote shortly before departing on its weeklong Memorial Day recess and just after deferring a final vote on the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which incorporates the marquee Endless Frontier Act science and technology initiative.

Although Lander did not require Senate confirmation in his dual-hatted position as presidential science advisor, he has not made public remarks in that role while awaiting confirmation. Now, he is free to take up both positions without restriction as well as his spot on President Biden’s Cabinet. The only position on the Cabinet remaining to be filled is director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

To stay up to date on science-related nominations across the government, consult FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker.

Lengthy confirmation process reaches its end

Lander’s confirmation arrived more than four months after Biden announced his nomination on Jan. 15 and about a month after his nomination hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. At that hearing, both Democrats and Republicans expressed reservations about him, pointing to controversies he has caused as well as to potentially problematic connections stemming from his long directorship of the Broad Institute, a leading genetics research center.

Ultimately, the committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate by voice vote on May 20. Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who was absent from Lander’s hearing, remarked that while she “would have loved to see a woman” as OSTP director, she and Lander had reached an understanding that focusing on increasing the demographic diversity of the STEM workforce should be his “very first task.”

Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) said he decided to support Lander after “carefully reviewing a number of matters that were raised,” but six Republicans registered opposition to his confirmation: Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Rick Scott (R-FL).

Lander’s confirmation process has been one of the longest ever for an OSTP director. President Clinton’s second director, Neal Lane, waited about a month longer from the date his nomination was announced. President Trump’s director, Kelvin Droegemeier, also took about five months to be confirmed, which happened nearly halfway through Trump’s term due to the lateness of his nomination. However, Lander’s arrival date in the Biden administration is neither especially early nor late by historical standards.

Great expectations for Lander’s tenure

Congress created OSTP in 1976 after President Nixon dissolved a predecessor science advisory apparatus that President Eisenhower had set up in 1957. Lander is the 11th person confirmed to direct the office and the first biologist; all previous directors have had backgrounds in the physical sciences or engineering. Neither a woman nor a person of color has ever been nominated for the job.

The status of OSTP has varied across presidential administrations. The office diminished substantially in size under President Reagan before growing again in the 1990s. Droegemeier, unlike many of his predecessors, did not carry the additional title of assistant to the president, which confers direct access to the Oval Office. Now, Lander is the first OSTP director to have a seat on the president’s Cabinet, giving him a central role in administration policymaking.

In a statement following his confirmation, Lander remarked, “America’s future depends on science and technology like never before. In elevating OSTP to the Cabinet, President Biden made clear that science and technology will be central to solving the nation’s most urgent challenges.”

In setting an agenda for the office, Biden has issued an executive order placing it in charge of a wide-ranging review of scientific integrity policies across federal agencies that is already underway. He also outlined more general priorities in a letter he gave to Lander when he nominated him, setting high expectations for his tenure.

“My hope is that you, working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public, will make recommendations to our administration on the general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt to ensure that our nation can continue to harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people,” Biden wrote.

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