In a dig at the outgoing Trump administration, President-elect Joe Biden introduced his slate of scientific advisers Saturday with the promise that they would summon “science and truth” to combat the coronavirus pandemic, climate crisis and other challenges.
“This is the most exciting announcement I’ve gotten to make,” Biden said after weeks of Cabinet and other nominations and appointments. “This is a team that is going to help restore your faith in America’s place in the frontier of science and discovery.”
Biden is elevating the position of science adviser to Cabinet level, a White House first, and said that Eric Lander, a pioneer in mapping the human genome who is in line to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is “one of the most brilliant guys I know.”
The president-elect, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Lander and other top science advisers never mentioned Trump's name, but they framed the inauguration Wednesday as a clean break from a president who downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and declared the science behind climate change to be a hoax.
“The science behind climate change is not a hoax. The science behind the virus is not partisan,” Harris said. “The same laws apply, the same evidence holds true regardless of whether or not you accept them.”
Biden emphasized how scientific research leads to practical progress and better quality of life, from the COVID-19 vaccines and new cancer treatments to clean energy expansion that reduces carbon emissions.
“Science is discovery. It’s not fiction,” Biden said. “It’s also about hope.”
And, again without naming Trump, the president-elect said one of his team’s tasks will be to gird public faith in science and its usefulness.
Lander added that Biden has tasked his advisers and “the whole scientific community and the American public” to “rise to this moment."
Biden and Harris also veered from their prepared texts to hold up the scientists as examples to children across the country.
“Superheroes aren’t just about our imagination,” Harris said. “They are walking among us. They are teachers and doctors and scientists, they are vaccine researchers ... and you can grow up to be like them, too.”
Lander is the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and was the lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome. He would be the first life scientist to have that White House job. His predecessor is a meteorologist.
The president-elect is retaining the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, who worked with Lander on the human genome project. Biden also named two prominent female scientists to co-chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Frances Arnold, a California Institute of Technology chemical engineer who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and MIT vice president for research and geophysics professor Maria Zuber will lead the outside science advisory council. Lander held that position during Obama administration.
Biden picked Alondra Nelson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a social scientist who studies science, technology and social inequality, as deputy science policy chief.
The president-elect noted the team's diversity and repeated his promise that his administration's science policy and investments would target historically disadvantaged and underserved communities.
Nelson celebrated that commitment.
“As a Black woman researcher, I am keenly aware of those who are missing from these rooms,” she said. “I believe we have a responsibility to work together to make sure that our science and technology reflects us ... who we truly are together.”
Science organizations were quick to praise Lander and the promotion of the science post to Cabinet level. The job as director of science and technology policy requires Senate confirmation.
Elevating the position "clearly signals the administration's intent to involve scientific expertise in every policy discussion,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society.
Lander, also a mathematician, is a professor of biology at both Harvard and MIT and his work has been cited nearly half a million times in scientific literature, one of the most among scientists. He has won numerous science prizes, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and a Breakthrough Prize, and is one of Pope Francis' scientific advisers.
“As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I saw America go to the moon,” Lander said, adding that “no nation is better equipped than America to lead the search for solutions” that “advance our health, our economic welfare and our national security.”
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland.