Recently President Biden named biologist Eric Lander, a well known professor of biology at MIT and co-founder of the famous Broad Institute, to be the new Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a position that Biden made into a Cabinet-level post. Lander played a big role in the Human Genome Project and was, under Obama, co-chair of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
I’m not a huge fan of Lander as a human being. When I was doing work for the defense in criminal cases involving DNA profiling, Lander was frequently on the other side, an expert witness for the prosecution who worked closely with the FBI. I felt that Lander was overly zealous in trying to adopt DNA profiling and its attendant statistics before the method and the stats were ready for prime time. He is, to my taste, too ambitious and self-aggrandizing. And, in Lander’s written history of the development of CRISPR-Cas9 system, he almost completely ignored the contributions of the two women who actually won the Nobel Prize for it—Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier—in favor of touting his own boy, Feng Zhang at the Broad. (Zhang didn’t share the Nobel.)
Despite Lander’s personality and ambition, it’s undeniable that he has the chops and the experience to do the Cabinet-level job of advising Biden on science. As I said, he was a major player and organizer of the Human Genome Project, he helped set up the Broad Institute, a reputable and highly funded research organization, and he’s had government experience under the Obama administration. Since the remit of Lander’s new job is to advise the President on science and technology, he’s certainly highly qualified.
But a consortium of women scientists, “500 Women Scientists“, finds the choice of Lander wanting, and explained why in a new op-ed in Scientific American. The problem, as they see it, is that the government in general, and science advisors in particular, are not sufficiently diverse. Lander’s problem—they do mention his personality, but that’s not the main issue—is that he’s a white male: just more of the same. The 500 Women Scientists group has written six stories already for Sci Am, so one might suspect that the journal itself supports their views.
Given the diversity of both cabinet positions and science advisors already appointed by Biden, however, I think the authors are misguided. Click on the screenshot to read:
The issues are several. First, the consortium sees the position as one that should be filled by a woman or member of a minority group, as there’s not sufficient diversity in the government and in science decision-making. But if you first look at the Biden cabinet itself, you see an overall diversity that, in fact, exceeds even “equity”. Here’s my tally so far, as best I can suss out ancestry. I’ve included Kamala Harris since she’s part of Cabinet meetings, and I’ve included all people listed in the Wikipedia article on Biden’s cabinet-level appointments and nominees.
And here’s the breakdown of those 24 people by sex and ethnicity, with the overall proportions in the American population given in parentheses. You can see that there is indeed “equity” here in the sense that representation in the Cabinet reflects representation in the population as a whole (source for population statistics is given below):
This is surely a Cabinet that “looks like America,” and that’s great.
But what about science? The consortium who wrote the op-ed feels that there aren’t enough women and people of color among them, and Lander, as the cabinet-level advisor, is therefore clearly a suboptimal choice. Yet the group mentions the several women and minority men already appointed by Biden for other science posts—and they don’t even add Rochelle Walensky, a highly qualified woman whom Biden just appointed to head the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention. That is surely a position as powerful, if not more so, than Lander’s. After all, the CDC head implements policy, while Lander just advises on policy. Further In the midst of the pandemic, head of the CDC is arguably the most important science post going, and Walensky has a real chance—literally a life and death one—to ensure that resources (vaccines) are equitably distributed. Now there’s a chance for equity!
As reader Mark reminds us in the comments, Biden has filled another science post—that of Assistant Secretary of Health—with a transgender woman, Rachel Levine.
From the op-ed:
We applaud the return of science back to the White House after four years of unprecedented damage. We celebrate the nomination of leaders like Deb Haaland—a Native American woman chosen to lead the Department of the Interior, which is largely responsible for managing tribal land—and Michael Regan—a leader with experience in environmental justice tapped to run the Environmental Protection Agency. We have cheered the nominations of people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in the wake of an administration that systematically chipped away at their rights and protections. Nominations that reflect America’s diversity of backgrounds and experiences should be the norm. That we are now celebrating so many firsts speaks to how far we still have to go to make society equitable and just.
. . . To pursue this agenda, the Biden-Harris team has equipped Lander with some of the greatest minds leading in science and society. The OSTP deputy director for science and society, Alondra Nelson, is a social scientist and distinguished scholar of race and social inequalities. She is one of the world’s most respected experts on the history of science, medicine and technology, and she wrote a book about the history of grassroots organizing around medical rights for civil and human rights. Maria Zuber and Frances H. Arnold will serve as co-chairs of the PCAST.
But that’s not enough. Lander is a straight white male, and that’s not great, despite his qualifications and experience in administration, both private and governmental. His Caucasianicity (he is Jewish, though) apparently means that he’s not sufficiently keen to use his position to effect social justice. This whole discussion presume that there are different ways that a white man would advise Biden from the way a white woman would advise Biden, and that would differ from the way a black Man, a Hispanic Man, or a black woman would advise Biden. It presumes, in other words, that one’s point of view is deeply connected with one’s sex, gender or ethnicity. I find that doubtful when it comes to science. (My emphases in the following.)
Despite this slate of diverse leadership, we can’t help but notice that the recently announced nomination of presidential science adviser Eric Lander fails to meet the moment. His nomination does not fill us with hope that he will shepherd the kind of transformation in science we need if we are to ensure science delivers equity and justice for all. We had high hopes that the Biden administration would continue its pattern of bold nominations when envisioning a newly elevated cabinet position of science adviser. There was certainly no shortage of options, with a deep bench of qualified women and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) whose expertise and experience can transform the place of science as a tool for justice.
As you see, the issue is not just Lander’s race and sex; it’s that the consortium sees promulgation of social justice and equity as perhaps the most important remit of Lander’s job. There’s the last sentence above, asking for science to be a “tool for justice”, as well as these statements:
The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg told us, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Yet high-level decision-makers in the U.S. federal government have continued to be overwhelmingly white and male, especially when it comes to science leadership positions. From a historic lack of federal leadership on environmental justice to health disparities born of systemic racism and economic inequality, science policy reflects and amplifies inequities within science. The Biden administration has a huge opportunity to change the face of scientific decision-making, particularly amidst a global pandemic, calls for racial justice from research institutions across the country, and the looming impacts of climate change.
. . . and this:
Lander, an MIT geneticist and former co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)—exemplifies the status quo. With this nomination, the opportunity to finally break the long lineage of white male science advisers has been missed. This was a chance to substantively address historical inequalities and transform harmful stereotypes by appointing someone with new perspectives into the top science adviser role. Despite a long list of supremely qualified people that could have held this position and inspired a whole new generation of scientists, the glass ceiling in American science remains intact.
Every statement above is questionable, either on the grounds of truth (I’ve just shown that four very important science advisors are women, one of them a Native American, and another is a black man. Further, the head of the CDC is a woman. Where, exactly, is the glass ceiling in Biden’s science appointments?
And I disagree with the consortium that an important function of the science advisor is to “deliver equity and justice” or that science should serve as a “tool for justice.” That is Woke ideology that misunderstands what a science advisor should do. Certainly an advisor should not deliver injustice, or promulgate policies that are unfair or bigoted, but the function of a science advisor is to advise Biden on science. The rest of the Cabinet, and of the Biden administration (including ethicists at the CDC) are charged with taking into account whether policies are just, which is also the purview of the Congress. Science is not a tool to bend society to the wishes of the woke—or to any other ideology—it’s a tool for finding out what’s true in the Universe.
I should note that the Consortium also makes a virtue of necessity, recasting Frances Arnold’s retraction of a paper as evidence of her integrity:
In 2018, Arnold won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and she was the first woman to be nominated to all three National Academies (Science, Engineering, Medicine). She has also demonstrated her commitment to scientific integrity, retracting a paper she had published when evidence of its flaws came to light.
I’m sorry, but it’s not a virtue to retract a paper when you find out it’s wrong (in this case, the data could not be reproduced). It is what every scientist is supposed to do, and, as my dad used to tell me, “Jerry, you don’t get praised for doing what you’re supposed to do.” Arnold in fact apologized for the retraction, saying that she didn’t do her job well and was “busy when this was submitted” (i.e., she didn’t properly oversee the paper). That is a fault, not a virtue. But she did correct herself. Her tweet:
But while overlooking Arnold’s missteps, the consortium refuses to overlook Lander’s. Those include his overly self-serving omission of Doudna and Charpentier’s contributions to the CRISPR system (a bad move, I think), and Lander’s having toasted James Watson at Watson’s 90th birthday party. Watson, of course, is a racist, and toasting him is seen by the Consortium (as it was by many others) as a “gross error in judgment”. Watson’s downplaying of Rosalind Franklin is also mentioned, though he later apologized for that.
In 2018, Lander was pressured to publicly apologize for making a gross error in judgement—and in leadership—by toasting James Watson, who was forced to step down from leading Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after a long history of racist and sexist comments, and who himself failed to acknowledge the contributions of Rosalind Franklin.
It’s part of this self-righteous criticism that the consortium overlooks Arnold’s deficiencies—believe me, if Lander retracted a paper, that would have been seen as a flaw—turning them into a virtue, while not forgiving Lander for toasting one of his colleagues (Watson in fact started the Human Genome Project for the government), despite apologizing for it. The self-serving history of CRISPR was a genuine misstep, something I wouldn’t have done, but I can’t find myself damning Lander for toasting one of his former colleagues on his 90th birthday. Yes, Watson is a flaming racist, but that’s not all there is to the man. But in the end, there is no forgiveness among the Woke. Praising Watson? Not in the cards. Damning a colleague for toasting him? Virtue flaunting.
Once again I prognosticate that Wokeness will not abate under the Biden administration. On the contrary, it will intensify. And this sanctimonious piece is surely infused with Wokeness. Of course Biden should take ethnicity and gender into account when he appointed his Cabinet. But he did! And he should also have taken into account experience and competence. He did that, too! His appointment of his science advisors reflects both considerations, and though I’m no fan of Eric Lander, I don’t agree with the consortium that his new appointment is a problem.