WASHINGTON — When President Biden announced that Dr. Eric Lander would be his top White House science adviser, he praised the MIT geneticist as one of the most brilliant people he knew and elevated his job to the Cabinet — a sign, he said, of his commitment to restoring the role of science in government after president Donald Trump so often dismissed it.
But Lander’s resignation Monday night, following a report of an internal investigation that found he bullied members of his staff, is the latest trip-up for an administration seeking to restore science’s prominence in government as it has struggled to bring the COVID pandemic to heel.
Biden ran for president on a pledge to reverse Trump’s rejection of the government’s scientific experts, promising voters he would “follow the science” and take on a pandemic that his predecessor had mismanaged while touting unproven miracle cures such as injecting bleach.
“We are going to lead with science and with truth and, God willing, this is how we are going to get over this pandemic and build back better than before,” Biden said, shortly before his inauguration.
He has taken steps to undo Trump’s imprint, restaffing agencies with scientists and elevating highly qualified experts to prominent positions. Yet that on its own was not enough to prevent missteps and communication failures in the administration’s COVID response as new variants created additional surges of infections and the death toll mounted. While they are glad the days of Trump’s cavalier attitude to the pandemic are over, outside experts have questioned key choices made by the president’s team and are disappointed more has not been done to restore public trust in the government’s scientific advice.
“I’d really like to see much stronger public health leadership coming from the Biden administration,” said Anne N. Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College.
The administration all but declared victory over the coronavirus last July, before the Delta variant and then Omicron swamped hospitals and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. It lags well behind other national governments in providing testing and collecting data on the outbreak and has issued guidance on masks, booster vaccinations, and isolation that then had to be revised or reversed. And while some of these challenges were unavoidable, even allies of the administration have acknowledged communication missteps.
“Communication has been a challenge. We know that,” said Michael T. Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who advised the Biden transition team on its COVID response and said the administration has stuck by the science playbook. “We have to do a better job of explaining, well, why did we change?”
Biden himself has acknowledged that simply having good scientists in the room has not solved all of the administration’s problems in fighting a virus that keeps throwing curveballs.
“The messages, to the extent they’ve been confusing, is because the scientists — they’re learning more,” Biden said last month. “They’re learning more about what’s needed and what’s not needed.”
Biden has long advocated for science to play a robust role in government, launching a cancer moonshot effort as vice president and advocating for huge infusions of scientific research funding on Capitol Hill. His treatment of government scientists marks a dramatic contrast from his predecessor, who sidelined and contradicted Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top scientists, fueling dangerous misinformation.
“I do think that they’ve followed the science,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge advocacy group. “They’ve allowed scientists to speak out. They haven’t politically manipulated the information by and large, which was what was happening in the previous administration.”
On his first full day in office, Biden posted a 198-page plan to tackle COVID, one that he said was based in “science, not politics” and “truth, not denial.” With seven separate goals — including restoring trust, mounting a huge vaccination campaign, and mitigating spread by expanding masking, testing, data, and more — it drew praise from outside experts who were delighted by its sweep.
But the mixed messages that have come from the administration’s key science advisers have undermined its efforts to restore the public’s trust in the government’s guidance, many experts have said. In late December and early January, for example, Fauci publicly second-guessed the CDC’s new five-day isolation guidance, which did not include a testing requirement.
“There certainly have been some moments where it appeared they were not on the same page,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor of public health and human rights at Johns Hopkins. “I think you’d have to say that the messaging particularly around the masking, the lifting of restrictions, the return of restrictions, all of that has frustrated people.”
He pointed out, however, that the government’s key experts are also facing steep headwinds, including a rapidly mutating virus and sustained disinformation campaigns from conservatives that have contributed to widespread vaccine hesitancy.
“The very fundamental reality is that nobody really had predicted either the Delta variant or the Omicron variant,” he said. “It has been just enormously challenging.”
Lander was not one of the more visible players in the administration’s pandemic response, and, unlike Fauci, he is not well-known outside scientific circles. Still, his resignation and the allegations that led to it, “simply adds to those in the public who want to use science as a weapon against the administration and Democrats in general,” said Neal Lane, who was the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, under Bill Clinton.
“I think it will make it more difficult to regain the public’s confidence in science,” said Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Tuesday on Capitol Hill , where Lander had been scheduled to testify in front of a House subcommittee about biomedical research, his behavior drew bipartisan rebuke. But Republicans also sought to seize the opening to criticize the administration’s COVID response more broadly.
“I have serious problems with the science team. I think there’s been an intolerance of other points of view that’s really antithetical to the scientific method,” said Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a Republican.
The missteps have fueled new questions among outside experts over whether Biden put the right scientists in key positions as his administration prepared to tackle a crisis that he knew would define his presidency. Lander’s reputation as a lightning rod, for example, was publicly known at the time of his nomination and unanimous confirmation by the Senate.
“The behavior is completely unacceptable for any scientist in any setting, particularly for the nation’s top science adviser,” Rosenberg said. “And unfortunately he has that history, which he keeps saying he’s going to address and never does.”
CDC director Rochelle Walensky is known as a brilliant infectious disease specialist for her work on HIV. But she came to her job with no experience working in the federal government or communicating as a public official, which has given her a steep learning curve in her first year on the job.
And — crucially — two of the most senior officials in the nation’s COVID response are not scientists at all. Jeffrey Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response coordinator, had overhauled the troubled website central to the Affordable Care Act, but his background is in business rather than science or medicine. And Xavier Becerra, the secretary of Health and Human Services, is the former attorney general of California who is facing questions about his leadership of the pandemic response.
“You really need the people in the highest-up positions to be leading experts in public health,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University. She added that, at times, Biden’s team has downplayed new variants, even though it was clear they were extracting a huge toll when they emerged overseas.
“If you look back at what Jeffrey Zients said as Omicron was arriving . . . his messages were, if you’re vaccinated, then all will be normal,” she said. “And nothing was normal for anybody — vaccinated or unvaccinated.”