The Biden Administration: #ScienceIsBack – and things may move faster than you could have ever expected

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President Joe Biden has chosen the award-winning geneticist Eric Lander to be both his science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. And for the first time in history, the position of science advisor will be elevated to the cabinet – which “marks a very important moment in the history of science in the government” and “signifies the importance of who will be in the room when decisions are being made,” say Landers’ colleagues.

The science community knows Eric Lander, 63, as one of the most highly cited researchers in the world. A mathematician turned medical geneticist, he was the principal leader of the international Human Genome Project that first mapped all of the genes in the human genome. And he’s the president and founding director of the Broad (rhymes with road) Institute of MIT and Harvard, a biomedical and genomic research center located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But there’s more to Eric Lander than just his stellar scientific credentials. The first public glimpse of that came five days ago when he was introduced to us by Joe Biden as his science advisor. Dr. Lander offered a few brief remarks and among them, spoke to the value of diversity in science:

America’s greatest asset is our unrivaled diversity. Scientific progress is about someone seeing something that no one has ever seen before. Because they bring a different lens, different experiences, different questions, different passions. No one can top America in that regard. But we have to ensure that everyone not only has a seat at the table, but a place at the lab bench.

It would be easy to write that off as Lander simply saying what’s expected of him – but that would be a mistake. Take a look at what he said when the heat was on. On a Friday in January 2017 President Trump issued an Executive Order on immigration targeting Muslims and refugees – the infamous Muslim Ban. The following Monday Eric Lander stood up to Trump publicly and in writing – alone among scientists from what I can tell – in a letter he posted in support of “foreign” colleagues and students at the Broad Institute. Here’s some of it:

I am writing concerning President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration targeting Muslims and refugees. Many of you are deeply worried and disturbed by this development, and so are we. …

On Friday, a few hours before the order was signed, we reached out to members of our international community who might be impacted by the executive order. We let them know that the immigration team in HR at the Broad is ready to help should they need it, and that we will stand with them. …

The Broad Institute vigorously opposes the executive order, because it repudiates our deeply held values about human dignity and because it unjustly targets valued members of our community. We stand by these colleagues. …

And it’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s also about doing the smart thing:

… by targeting Muslims, the ban is likely to turn people against America. It will likely lead to increased threats from abroad, from individuals unaffected by the ban, and at home, from those who may be radicalized over the internet.

Here, he addresses the importance of diversity:

It is wrong because the policy turns its back on one of America’s greatest sources of strength: the flow of visitors, immigrants and refugees who have enriched our nation with their ideas, dreams, drive, energy, and entrepreneurship. Immigrants and visitors have made up a disproportionate share of America’s scientists, engineers, university faculty, Nobel laureates, and founders of start-ups. Refugees have played a central role in defending America, including inventing our atomic arsenal during World War II.

In closing, he says:

Today we say in solidarity: “We are all Muslims now.” “We are all refugees now.”

That took guts – and it matters today.

When Biden appointed Lander to be his science advisor he sent him a three page letter with marching orders to “reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.”

In the letter Biden asks Lander to investigate and report back to him on five key issues: the pandemic, climate change, national security, protecting the integrity of science in government and, notably, asking, How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans? adding:

The benefits of science and technology remain unevenly distributed across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines. How can we ensure that Americans of all backgrounds are drawn into both the creation and the rewards of science and technology? …

How can we ensure that advances in medical science benefit the health of all Americans, including substantially reducing racial and socioeconomic health disparities?

Dr. Lander may well have answered that question, at least in part, some four years ago. If you go to the website of the Broad you’ll find a brief video (below) of Lander talking about his approach to science:

What the Broad is about is trying to take on those problems that can’t be done in a traditional setting. Whether it involves pulling people together across various different disciplines or taking something on at scale or taking on something that’s very risky, the Broad is about trying to stretch the boundaries of what we can do together as a scientific community. Science moves forward because these people bring new perspectives. So you’ve got to bring together people who aren’t already steeped in the old way of looking at a problem. … 

We’re often too realistic – too grounded – about just what might be possible, what might be beyond our reach. And it turns out when you set an expeditionary force of early career scientists off on a problem they get so much further than one could ever imagine because they invent new tools, they’ve got new questions, they work with each other, they share perspectives. And so again and again I’m shocked that things move faster than you could have ever expected.

I can’t imagine a more inclusive, necessary, or timely message from a scientist. Here’s surgeon, writer, and public health expert Atul Gawande with his take on Eric Lander’s appointment:

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