Biden makes two interim appointments to replace top science adviser

17 Feb 2022 | News

Following Eric Lander’s resignation over accusations of workplace bullying, his joint roles are split between two temporary replacements, with ex-NIH head Francis Collins brought out of retirement to shore up science policy

Francis Collins (left) and Alondra Nelson (right)

The White House has confirmed two temporary replacements for the outgoing presidential science adviser Eric Lander, as it seeks to reassure the community that his departure will not derail the administration’s science agenda.

Francis Collins, the long-serving National Institutes of Health director who retired last year, will step in as science adviser to the president. He will also co-chair a White House advisory body, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

Meanwhile, Alondra Nelson, a sociologist who is currently deputy director for science and society in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), will for now take over as director.

Lander, who occupied both roles, resigned earlier this month after reports that he bullied his subordinates.

The two appointments came unusually fast – for Washington – and seemed aimed at reaffirming Biden’s campaign pledges to take science more seriously than his predecessor.

Collins is one of America’s best-known geneticists, due to his leadership of the Human Genome Project that in 2003 delivered the first full sequence of the human DNA code – and he worked on that project with Lander. Nelson’s own research speciality has been racial and social equity studies, and her promotion reflects Biden’s promises to make the US scientific and academic system more equitable.

In their temporary roles, officials said, Collins will lead some of Biden’s major science initiatives in health, climate and other fields. As OSTP chief, Nelson will be handling policy directives on such topics as open science, research security, intellectual property guidelines and international agreements. OSTP is part of the White House bureaucracy, reporting to the president.

Announcing the appointments, the White House said they would allow the administration’s science agenda “to move seamlessly forward under proven leadership.” Nelson and Collins will stay in place until permanent replacements are nominated and confirmed.

Dual scientific-political role

But there was no official word on who might become Biden’s permanent science adviser – and whether that person would retain Lander’s title as a member of the president’s cabinet. The position of presidential science adviser dates back to the 1940s, but Lander was the first to be a cabinet member. That dual political-scientific role was controversial in some circles. In most countries, government science advisers give advice, they don’t get involved in implementing it.

The rapid appointments were, not surprisingly, welcomed by the US research community. “Both Nelson and Collins are highly regarded, and we are excited to work with them in their new positions,” said Kathleen Larmett, executive director of the National Council of University Research Administrators.

The expediency of the appointments was also noted. “From a political standpoint, Nelson and Collins will provide continuity and experienced science leadership without the need for lengthy vetting and confirmation processes," observed Al Teich, research professor at George Washington University and former head of science policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

One major item on the agenda is the formation of Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, ARPA-H, modelled on the defence research agency DARPA, an initiative pushed by Lander.

The White House hopes to launch ARPA-H this year with a budget of $6.5 billion. The statement said the choice of Collins and Nelson is a response to the “very specific attention the president wants to give to the creation of a new ARPA-H research and discovery agency.”

Collins was one of the science leaders who, alongside Lander, set out an agenda for ARPA-H last year. He also has the expertise to underpin another favoured Biden project, the proposed new cancer moonshot.

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