In the campaign, Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed to depose Donald J. Trump and bring science back to the White House, federal government, and nation after years of President’s assault and denial, neglect, and disorder.
As president-elect, he got off to a quick start in January by appointing Eric S. Lander, a top biologist, as his scientific advisor. He also made the job a cabinet position, describing his survey as part of his effort to “reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy.”
In theory, the expanded position of Dr. Make Lander one of the most influential scientists in American history.
But his Senate confirmation hearing has been postponed for three months. The slow pace arose in part from questions about his 2012 meeting with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who sneaked into the scientific elite despite a 2008 conviction, according to Politico, as a sex offender.
At the hearing that finally took place on Thursday, Dr. Lander canceled the Epstein question, saying he only met him “briefly at two events within three weeks”. However, he admitted that he “underestimated” the work of two scientists – Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna – who received a Nobel Prize last year for their work on the Crispr gene editing technique. “I made a mistake,” said Dr. Lander to the Senators. “And if I make a mistake, I own it and try to do better.”
The long delay in his Senate confirmation has raised concerns that the survey of Dr. Lander by the Biden government is more symbolic than content – it’s more about creating the appearance of strong federal support for the science enterprise than working to achieve a productive reality.
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has interviewed and profiled scientific advisor to the President, recently stated that one of President Biden’s major scientific agendas, climate policy, swiftly without the help of a White House science advisor made progress.
“Does Biden give him a lot of work?” he asked for Dr. Lander’s role. “Or is there actually an insurance portfolio?”
Likewise, Mr Biden’s first proposed federal budget, presented on April 9, was not publicly approved by the President’s science advisor, but is aiming for a substantial increase in funding from almost every science agency.
Mr. Biden’s science advocate and his late start has raised a number of questions: What are the White House science advisors actually doing? What you should do? Are some more successful than others, and if so, why? Do they ever play a significant role in Washington’s budget wars? Does Mr. Biden’s approach have echoes in history?
The American public received few answers to such questions during Mr. Trump’s tenure. He left the position blank for the first two years of his tenure – by far the longest such post since Congress in 1976, when the modern version of the advisory post and office was established in the White House. Under public pressure, Mr. Trump filled the opening in early 2019 with Kelvin Droegemeier, an Oklahoma meteorologist, who held back. Critics mocked Mr. Trump’s neglect of this position and the open positions in other academic expert positions across the executive branch.
While the responsibilities of federal labor scientists are usually defined in great detail, every president’s science advisor comes to the job with a blank board, according to Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the science, technology, and public order program at the University of Michigan.
“You don’t have a clear portfolio,” she said. “You have a lot of flexibility.”
The lack of set responsibilities means that as early as 1951, and President Harry S. Truman – the first to bring a formal science advisor to the White House – had the leeway to assume a variety of roles, including those far removed from science.
“We have the image of a wise person standing behind the president, whispering in his ear and imparting knowledge,” said Dr. Pielke. “The reality is that the science advisor is a resource for the White House and the President to do with what they see fit.”
Dr. Pielke argued that Mr. Biden is genuinely interested in quickly rebuilding the credibility of the position and building public confidence in the federal know-how. “There’s a lot to like,” he said.
However, history shows that even good beginnings in the world of scientific advice to the president are no guarantee that the appointment will end on a high level.
“Anyone who comes to a science advisor without significant political experience faces some gross shocks,” said Edward E. David Jr., the science advisor to President Richard M. Nixon, in an interview long after his tenure as a bruise. He passed away in 2017.
One day in 1970, Mr. Nixon ordered Dr. David, all federal research grants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. David’s alma mater, to be shortened. At the time, it was receiving more than $ 100 million a year.
The reason? The President of the United States had found the school president’s political views intolerable.
“I just sat there amazed,” recalled Dr. David. Back in his office, the phone rang. It was John Ehrlichman, one of Mr. Nixon’s trusted helpers.
“Ed, my advice is not to do anything,” he recalled Mr. Ehrlichman. The sensitive subject soon disappeared.
1973, shortly after Dr. David had resigned, Mr. Nixon eliminated the fiefdom. The president had reportedly come to see the advisor as a science lobbyist. After Mr. Nixon stepped down, Congress stepped in to reinstate both the Advisory Board and its governing body, renaming it the Science and Technology Policy Office of the White House.
Some analysts argue that the position has become more influential in line with academic achievements and advances. However, others say the stature of the job has declined as science has become more specialized and advisory work has increasingly focused on narrow topics that are unlikely to interest the president. Still others believe that so many specialists are now informing the federal government that a senior White House scientist has become superfluous.
Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University, argued in a 2007 study that the job’s impact “grew and decreased (mostly decreased) over time.”
But Mr Biden’s moves, he added in an interview, were now poised to add importance and potential vacillation to the post. “For Democrats,” he said, “science and politics are converging, so it is wise to raise the status of science.” It’s good politics. “
The scientific community tends to view presidential advisers as effective science budget activists. Not so, did Dr. Sarewitz argues. He sees the federal budget for science well done over the decades, regardless of what the president’s science advisors have endorsed or promoted.
Neal F. Lane, a physicist who served as scientific advisor to President Bill Clinton, argued that the post is more important today than ever as its resident offers a broad perspective on what can best serve the nation and the world.
“Only the science advisor 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 moment is right, added Dr. Lane added. Disasters like the war, the Kennedy assassination, and the 2001 terrorist attacks could become turning points in the revitalization. He added that the coronavirus pandemic is a time in American history when “big changes can take place”.
He hoped that Mr Biden would be able to bring up topics such as energy, climate change and pandemic preparedness.
Regarding the federal budget, Dr. Lane, who headed the National Science Foundation before becoming Clinton’s scientific advisor from 1998 to 2001, his own experience suggested the post could have a modest impact, but it would reset the country’s scientific development. In his own tenure, he said, funding increased for the natural sciences, including physics, math, and engineering.
Part of his own influence, said Dr. Lane, came from personal relationships in the White House. For example, he met the powerful director of the Office of Management and Budget who set the finances of the administration while he was dining at the White House Mess.
According to analysts, the advisory role of the president becomes most influential when the scientific advisors are closely coordinated with the president’s agendas. But a commander in chief’s goals may not coincide with those of the scientific establishment, and any influence exerted by proximity to the president can prove to 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 a scientific advisor to Ronald Reagan, he strongly supported the president’s vision of the missile defense plan known as the Star Wars.
Dr. Pielke of the University of Colorado said the controversial topic was Dr. Keyworths become business card in official Washington. “It was Star Wars,” he said. “That’s it.” Despite intense lobbying, the president’s call for weapons in space met with fierce opposition from experts and Congress, and the costly effort never got beyond the research phase.
Political analysts say Mr. Biden went out of his way to help Dr. Lander, a geneticist and president of the Broad Institute, a center for advanced biology operated by Harvard University and MIT, to share his core interests
Mr Biden, in his address to Congress on Wednesday, plugged a plug for a new health agency to expedite treatment for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. “Let’s end cancer as we know it,” he said, receiving applause from the legislature. Dr. Lander discussed the idea at his Senate hearing on Thursday, saying the National Institutes of Health would be the right home for the initiative.
On January 15, Mr. Biden published a letter with marching orders to Dr. Lander, where he pondered whether science can help “backward communities” and “ensure Americans of all backgrounds” are involved in the creation of science and secure its rewards.
Dr. Parthasarathy said Mr. Biden’s approach was unusual, both as a public letter and as a request to science to have a social conscience. In time, she added, the agenda could change both the advisor’s office and the nation.
“We are in a moment” where 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 questions, and I think they are simple scientists too,” added Dr. Parthasarathy added. “If there was ever a time to really focus on her, it is now.”