The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened a confirmation hearing for Eric S. Lander, PhD, to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on April 29. President Biden has elevated the role of OSTP director to a cabinet level position, a first for science policy within the White House.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) highlighted the contributions of academic institutions and trainees to the COVID-19 response. He asked Lander how the pandemic has impacted the research enterprise [refer to related story] and how the country can better prepare for future pandemics.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect … on the research enterprise. The biggest impact has been on women scientists,” Lander responded. “It had impacts on labs whose funding may have run out in the middle of this period and won’t have been able to reach the goals they had promised to reach. It has impacts on graduate students and post docs who have limited time and have lost critical time in their projects.” He added that the federal government needs to have flexibility in supporting the research enterprise, including laboratories and researchers, through the “enormous disruption.”
Regarding future pandemic responses, Lander argued that the country should be prepared to have enough approved vaccine for the entire country within 100 days of the detection of a future potential pandemic. “What excites me about this potential role if confirmed is to try to help us come together to set really bold goals and respond to them,” Lander added.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) addressed President Biden’s proposal to establish a directed biomedical research program within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [refer to Washington Highlights, April 16]. Specifically, Blunt asked Lander if NIH was the best place for the proposed agency, ARPA-H, and if NIH’s COVID-19 response programs like RAD-x better prepared the agency to take on ARPA-H.
Lander embraced the proposal and added that the proposed work of ARPA-H would encompass projects that fall outside the scope of NIH’s traditional basic research grants and that may not be sufficiently developed to attract industry investment. Lander said that such an organization belongs within the NIH to avoid duplication and competition, and that NIH’s COVID-19 response does show the agency’s ability to pivot and take on “bold” initiatives. Biden also highlighted this proposal as an effort to address cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease during his first joint session address [refer to related story].
Regarding the OSTP director’s role to address competitiveness with China, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked Lander about the Endless Frontier Act (S. 1260), which the committee is soon expected to consider [refer to Washington Highlights, April 23]. Lee shared his concern that the bill only responds to the Chinese Communist Party by increasing federal expenditures to the National Science Foundation, which he argued may become counterproductive.
“I think our competition with China is incredibly important,” Lander said. “The importance of making sure that we win in these different technologies means that it is appropriate to be developing ways to move things from fundamental research into industry by filling gaps between those two,” he added.
Lander also testified on his commitment to maintaining productive research environments across the nation, including at smaller institutions and in rural states. Lander offered the ideas of establishing new programs to expand national labs, creating regional technology hubs, and supporting specific research areas of excellence in different states.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who led the hearing, emphasized the importance of diversity in science in her opening statement. She noted that she is “troubled” by the issues of Lander previously understating the role of two women scientists in the discovery of the Nobel Prize-winning gene-editing technology, CRISPR, and Lander’s previous meetings with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
“The bottom line is that if confirmed you will have the authority to promote the representation of women and minorities in STEM fields, so I strongly encourage you to use this hearing as an opportunity to explain how you’ve learned from your past mistakes,” Duckworth said.
In his testimony, Lander responded that he learns from his mistakes and is committed to doing better. In his opening statement, Lander emphasized his intent to increase the inclusiveness and vibrancy of U.S. research to include scientists from all backgrounds. If confirmed, Lander said he would work to increase the participation of women and underrepresented people in the STEM professions by 50%.
Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) echoed Duckworth’s concerns regarding Lander’s and the Broad Institute’s relationship with Epstein, noting that he is awaiting a response to his request for 10 years’ worth of donor records to the institute.
Lander also repeated that he chose not to associate with Jeffrey Epstein. “We never requested funds, we never received funds from him or his foundation…I met him at two events within the span of three weeks in the spring of 2012…I did not know about his sordid history before that point,” he said.
The Committee is next expected to vote on Lander’s nomination. Sen. Duckworth noted that the hearing record would remain open for additional questions from committee members until May 13.