During the election campaign, Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed to overthrow Donald J. Trump and bring science back to the White House, the federal government and the nation after years of presidential attacks and disavowal, neglect and of dismay.
As president-elect, he got off to a quick start in January by appointing Eric S. Lander, one of the best biologists, as his scientific advisor. He also made the post a cabinet-level post, calling its elevation part of his effort to “re-energize our national science and technology strategy.”
In theory, the improved post could make Dr. Lander one of the most influential scientists in American history.
But his Senate confirmation hearing was postponed for three months The slowness, according to Politico, is in part due to questions about his 2012 meetings with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who had crept into the scientific elite despite a conviction of 2008 which had marked him as a sex offender.
At the hearing, which finally took place on Thursday, Dr Lander brushed off Epstein’s question, saying he had only met him “briefly at two events in the span of three weeks.” But he admitted he had “Minimized” the work of two women scientists – Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, who shared a Nobel Prize last year for their work on the Crispr gene editing technique. “I made a mistake,” Dr. Lander told senators. “And when I make a mistake, I own it and try to do better.”
The long delay in his confirmation to the Senate raised fears that the elevation of Dr. Lander’s role by the Biden administration was more symbolic than substantial – that it was more to create the appearance of strong federal support for the scientific enterprise rather than working to achieve a productive reality. .
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has interviewed and profiled presidential science assistants, recently noted that one of President Biden’s main science agendas, climate policy, has progressed rapidly without the help from a White House science. advise.
“Does Biden give him a busy job?” he asked what Dr Lander’s role was. “Or is there really a portfolio of policies?”
Likewise, Mr Biden’s first federal budget proposal, unveiled on April 9, received no public approval from the presidential science adviser, but nonetheless seeks to significantly increase funding for nearly all science agencies.
The fact that Mr. Biden is championing the science post and its infrequent launch have raised a number of questions: What are the White House science advisers really doing? What should they do? Are some more successful than others and if so, why? Do they play an important role in Washington’s budget wars? Does Mr. Biden’s approach have echoes in history?
The American public got few answers to such questions during Mr. Trump’s tenure. He left the post empty for the first two years of his administration – by far the longest vacant post since Congress in 1976 established the modern version of the advisory post and its office in the White House. Under public pressure, Mr. Trump closed the opening in early 2019 with Kelvin Droegemeier, an Oklahoma meteorologist who kept a low profile. Critics have derided Mr. Trump’s neglect of this post and the vacancies of other senior scientific positions in the executive branch.
But while scientists in the federal workforce usually have their responsibilities laid out in great detail, each presidential science adviser comes up with what amounts to a blank slate, according to Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program. at the University of Michigan.
“They don’t have a clear portfolio,” she said. “They have a lot of flexibility.”
The lack of defined responsibilities meant that assistants as early as 1951 and President Harry S. Truman – the first to bring in an official science adviser to the White House – were given the latitude to take on a variety of roles, including very far from science.
“We have this image of a wise person standing behind the president, whispering in his ear, imparting knowledge,” said Dr Pielke. “In reality, the science adviser is a resource for the White House and the president to do as they see fit.”
Dr Pielke argued that Mr Biden sincerely wanted to quickly rebuild the credibility of the post and increase public confidence in federal know-how. “There is a lot to love for us,” he says.
But history shows that even a good start in the presidential science council world doesn’t guarantee the date will end on a high note.
“Anyone who steps up to the post of science adviser without considerable political experience faces severe shocks,” said Edward E. David Jr., science adviser to President Richard M. Nixon, in a speech long after his murderous tenure. He passed away in 2017.
One day in 1970, Mr. Nixon ordered Dr. David to cut all federal funding for research to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. David’s alma mater. At the time, he was receiving over $ 100 million a year.
The reason? The President of the United States had found the political views of the President of the school intolerable.
“I just sat there in awe,” recalls Dr. David. Back in his office, the phone rang. It was John Ehrlichman, one of Mr. Nixon’s trusted assistants.
“Ed, my advice is to do nothing,” he recalls, telling Mr. Ehrlichman. The nettle problem quickly vanished.
In 1973, shortly after Dr. David’s departure, Mr. Nixon eliminated the stronghold. The president would have come to see the adviser as a science lobbyist. After Mr. Nixon left office, Congress stepped in to reestablish both the advisory post and its administrative body, renaming it the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The position, according to some analysts, has become more influential as scientific exploits and advancements have developed. But others say the post’s stature has shrunk as science has become more specialized and advisory work has increasingly focused on narrow topics unlikely to attract presidential interest. Still others argue that so many scholars are now advising the federal government that a chief White House scientist has become redundant.
Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science and society at Arizona State University, argued in a 2007 study that the influence of the position “has increased and decreased (most of the time) over time.
But Mr Biden’s moves, he added in an interview, were now poised to increase the post’s importance and its potential influence. “For Democrats,” he said, “science and politics are converging right now, so raising the status of science is smart. This is good policy.
The scientific community tends to view presidential advisers as effective advocates for science budgets. This is not the case, argued Dr Sarewitz. He considers federal science budgets to have worked well over the decades, regardless of what the president’s science advisers have approved or promoted.
Neal F. Lane, a physicist who served as President Bill Clinton’s scientific adviser, argued that the post is more important today than ever because its occupant provides a broad perspective on what can best help the nation and the world.
“Only the science adviser can be the integrator of all these complex issues and the broker who helps the president understand the game between the agencies,” he said in an interview.
The timing is right, added Dr Lane. Disasters like the war, the Kennedy assassination and the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, can become revitalizing watersheds. Likewise, he added, the coronavirus pandemic is a period in American history when “great changes can take place.”
His hope, he said, is that Mr Biden will succeed in raising issues such as energy, climate change and pandemic preparedness.
Turning to the federal budget, Dr Lane, who headed the National Science Foundation before becoming Mr Clinton’s science adviser from 1998 to 2001, said his own experience suggested the position could have modest impacts that nevertheless reinitialize the scientific trajectory of the country. His own tenure, he said, saw an increase in funding for the physical sciences, including physics, mathematics and engineering.
Part of his own influence, Dr Lane said, stemmed from personal connections in the White House. For example, he got to know the powerful director of the Office of Management and Budget, who fixed the finances of the administration, while dining at the White House mess.
The presidential advisory post becomes more influential, analysts say, when scientific assistants are closely aligned with presidential agendas. But the goals of a commander-in-chief may not match those of the scientific establishment, and any influence conferred by the president’s proximity can be quite narrow.
George A. Keyworth II was a physicist from Los Alamos – the birthplace of the atomic bomb in New Mexico. In Washington, as Ronald Reagan’s scientific adviser, he strongly supported the president’s vision for the anti-missile plan known as Star Wars.
Dr Pielke of the University of Colorado said the contentious issue has become Dr Keyworth’s calling card in Washington. “It was Star Wars,” he said. “That was it.” Despite intense lobbying, the presidential call to arms in space met with stiff opposition from scholars and Congress alike, and the costly effort never made it beyond research.
Political analysts say Mr Biden has gone out of his way to communicate his core interests to Dr Lander – a geneticist and president of the Broad Institute, a center for advanced biology run by Harvard University and MIT
In his speech to Congress on Wednesday, Biden set up a new health agency to speed up treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. “Let’s end cancer as we know it,” he said, to lawmakers’ applause. Dr Lander discussed the idea during his Senate hearing on Thursday and said the National Institutes of Health would be the perfect venue for the initiative.
On January 15, Mr Biden released a letter with marching orders for Dr Lander to examine whether science could help “communities that have been left behind” and “ensure that Americans of all walks of life” are trained in making science like as well as getting its rewards.
Dr Parthasarathy said Mr Biden’s approach was unusual in both being a public letter and asking science to have a social conscience. Over time, she added, the agenda could transform both the adviser’s office and the nation.
“We are at a time” when science has the potential to make a difference on issues of social justice and inequality, she said. “I know my students are increasingly concerned about these issues, and I think grassroots scientists are too,” added Dr Parthasarathy. “If ever there was a time to really focus on them, it’s now.”