Presidential Science Adviser Lander Resigns Amid Criticism of Demeaning Behavior

Presidential Science Adviser Lander Resigns Amid Criticism of Demeaning Behavior

Eric Lander, the first presidential science advisor to hold Cabinet rank, resigned tonight after a White House investigation found credible evidence supporting accusations by his staff that he treated them demeaningly. President Biden vowed when he took office that he would fire anyone who treated others disrespectfully. The initial White House response was muted, but the tide turned after Politico reported on the situation today.

Eric Lander, President’s Science Adviser and Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Credit: White House

Lander is Biden’s Science Adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). When Biden announced the appointment on January 16, 2021, he said he was elevating the position to Cabinet rank for the first time.

A professor of biology at MIT and of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, Lander was part of the team that mapped the human genome. He chaired the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for the entire Obama-Biden Administration.

The appointment last year drew praise from many in the science community, while others criticized him for downplaying the contributions of two women who received Nobel Prizes for inventing the CRISPR gene editing tool. He was confirmed by the Senate on May 28, 2021 by voice vote.

This morning, however, Politico broke the story that OSTP staff members had accused him of bullying behavior and a White House investigation found “credible evidence of violations” of the “Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy” for the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes OSTP.

Lander issued a letter of apology to his staff and initially the White House merely required him “to hold more collaborative meetings with subordinates” and “mandated more trainings for staff on the workplace policy” according to Politico.

During today’s daily press conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was repeatedly asked why he wasn’t reprimanded more strongly considering Biden said when swearing in his appointees on Inauguration Day that he would fire anyone who treated others disrespectfully.

“But I am not joking when I say this, if you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts. Everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That’s been missing in a big way the last four years.” — President Biden, January 20, 2021

Psaki defended the White House’s process and said it would be monitoring his compliance with the requirements they set out. “Obviously, his behavior was inappropriate, and corrective actions needed to be taken, and that was clearly conveyed through this process. And he will be held to account for delivering on that.”

Later in the afternoon, the bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee sent a letter to Biden asking for more details. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) requested a copy of the investigation report and a briefing “on the steps being taken to ensure the workforce environment at OSTP is safe, respectful, and furthers the Office’s critical missions.”

“A fully functioning OSTP is vital to the success of that effort. The behavior described in the Politico article and acknowledged by OSTP Director Lander is harmful to the workforce of OSTP as they attempt to carry out their responsibilities.”  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Rep. Frank Lucas

At about 9:00 pm ET, Psaki issued a statement that Biden had accepted Lander’s resignation.

“The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening with gratitude for his work at OSTP on the pandemic, the Cancer Moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities. He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.” — Jen Psaki

OSTP is one of the four White House offices most deeply engaged with space policy and programs along with the National Space Council, National Security Council, and Office of Management and Budget. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro is OSTP’s Assistant Director for Space Policy and recently has been leading efforts on space debris mitigation and remediation.


This article has been updated.

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