President-elect Joe Biden on Friday nominated Eric Lander, a pioneer in the study of the human genome and the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to be his chief science adviser in a newly created Cabinet position.
If confirmed by the Senate, Lander will be the first science adviser to serve in a presidential Cabinet, a sign observers say signals Biden will embrace rigorous scientific research far more seriously than President Trump did.
After four years of an administration seen as skeptical of, and sometimes hostile to, scientific expertise, particularly in the area of climate change and the threat of the coronavirus, the appointment of a life scientist as a top adviser promises a new era for American science, experts said.
“The elevation [of the role] is outstanding,” said David Lucchino, chief executive of Frequency Therapeutics and immediate past chairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. “After four years of a deep commitment to anti-science, I think you couldn’t get much better than Dr. Lander to really be the leader for our community.”
Lander will also serve as director of the Office of Science and Technology, a position that encompasses a broad field of study, including climate change, public health, and other areas critical to the development of a national science policy.
In a letter released by his transition team, Biden asked for strategic advice in five specific areas: lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, how technological advances can combat climate change, ensuring that the United States is a world leader in technology and industry, making the benefits of technology available to all Americans, and supporting the long-term health and integrity of science in the US.
Biden also announced Friday that he had selected Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, as cochair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Zuber oversees MIT’s Climate Action Plan and leads the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research laboratories and centers.
In announcing the appointments of key members of the White House science team, Biden pledged that science will be “at the forefront of my administration — and these world-renowned scientists will ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts, and the truth.”
“Their trusted guidance will be essential as we come together to end this pandemic, bring our economy back, and pursue new breakthroughs to improve the quality of life of all Americans,” Biden said in the statement. “Their insights will help America chart a brighter future, and I am grateful they answered the call to serve.”
A renowned geneticist, molecular biologist, and mathematician, Lander was one of the principal leaders of the international Human Genome Project from 1990 to 2003. He also was a 1987 recipient of a MacArthur Fellow “genius grant.”
He was previously a scientific adviser to former president Barack Obama, serving as cochair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009 to 2017. He is a biology professor at MIT and a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, and he cofounded Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Verastem, and Neon Therapeutics.
“Our country stands at the most consequential moment for science and technology since World War II,” Lander said in a statement. “How we respond will shape our future for the rest of this century. President-elect Biden understands the central role of science and technology, and I am deeply honored to have the chance to serve the nation.”
Lander and the Globe’s Opinion section also collaborated on Brave New Planet, a podcast and op-ed series on the future of technology.
If confirmed, Lander said he plans to take an unpaid leave of absence from the Broad Institute. Todd R. Golub, the Broad’s chief scientific officer, will become director of the institute. He has played a central role in building and leading the institute since before its launch in 2004.
“Broad is in a stronger scientific and cultural position today than at any point in our 16-year history,” Golub said in a statement. “I am honored to serve as director of this remarkable institution.”
Lander’s selection was hailed by other scientists, some of whom have known him for decades.
Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a science advocacy group, said the appointments are “not simply welcome news, it is an urgently important, strategic turning point for our nation.”
In a statement, she called Lander “the right leader at the right time to provide Cabinet-level counsel and direct our nation’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.”
John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, said Biden’s announcement “represents science rising like a phoenix from the ashes.”
“We’re going to see a profound reemergence of how science provides a foundation for important policies across so many different dimensions of the government,” said Maraganore, who has known Lander since the 1990s. “I could not imagine a more brilliant choice for somebody to lead this new Cabinet position. … He knows how to bring different disciplines of science together to work in extraordinary ways.”
Louis V. Gerstner Jr., chair of the Broad’s board of directors, said in a statement that the institute was “pleased and honored that the president-elect has selected Eric to serve at a time when the country desperately needs to reimagine and reenergize science throughout our nation.”
Gerun Riley, president of The Broad Foundation, congratulated Lander in a statement and said, “He will help elevate the role of science and technology in wrestling with some of the biggest issues of our time.”
“We are heartened that he is bringing his enthusiasm, experience, public service spirit and scientific vision to the Biden administration, and we wish him much success in his new role.”