Biden’s Cabinet Slot For Science Is Filled By Flatlands ‘Genius’

Eric Lander is hero to peers, pioneer In genome research

January 25, 2021 Bill Barrow and Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

President Joe Biden has elevated the position of science adviser to Cabinet level, and to fill the post he has nominated a Brooklyn-born and raised scientist who pioneered in mapping the human genome.

The president called Eric Lander “one of the most brilliant guys I know.”

Lander is the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and was the lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome. He would be the first life scientist to have that White House job. His predecessor is a meteorologist.

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Lander is also a mathematician, and his work has been cited nearly half a million times in scientific literature, one of the most among scientists. He has won numerous science prizes, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and a Breakthrough Prize, and is one of Pope Francis’ scientific advisers.

He grew up in Flatlands and recently said, “As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I saw America go to the moon,” adding that “no nation is better equipped than America to lead the search for solutions” that “advance our health, our economic welfare and our national security.”

His father, Harold Lander, was a lawyer who became disabled by multiple sclerosis and died when Eric was 11. His mother, Rhoda, was trained as a lawyer as well, but because there were few opportunities for female attorneys in those days, she worked as a social studies teacher.

“Nobody in the neighborhood was a scientist,” Lander recently told the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. “Very few had gone to college.”

However, from an early age, Lander decided to take a different path than his neighbors. At Stuyvesant High School, Lander led the school’s math team, and won a silver medal for the United States in the International Mathematical Olympiad. At age 17, a paper he wrote on quasiperfect numbers won the national Westinghouse Science Talent, the Rhodes Scholars website reported.

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When he was nominated recently, Lander said President Biden has tasked his advisers and “the whole scientific community and the American public” to “rise to this moment.”

Science organizations were quick to praise Lander and the promotion of the science post to Cabinet level. The job as director of science and technology policy requires Senate confirmation.

Elevating the position “clearly signals the administration’s intent to involve scientific expertise in every policy discussion,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society.

“Science is discovery. It’s not fiction,” Biden said. “It’s also about hope.”

In other science-related posts, the president is retaining the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, who worked with Lander on the human genome project. Biden also named two prominent female scientists to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Frances Arnold, a California Institute of Technology chemical engineer who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and MIT vice president for research and geophysics professor Maria Zuber will lead the outside science advisory council. Lander held that position during Obama administration.

Biden picked Alondra Nelson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a social scientist who studies science, technology and social inequality, as deputy science policy chief.

The president noted the team’s diversity and repeated his promise that his administration’s science policy and investments would target historically disadvantaged and underserved communities.

—Additional material by Raanan Geberer

 


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