President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint two people to temporarily fill the White House’s top science advice position—a job typically held by one appointee—is drawing mixed reactions from the U.S. research community, including opposing takes from two former presidential science advisers.
The Biden administration said yesterday it is “doubling down on science” by appointing geneticist Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to serve as the president’s science adviser and social scientist Alondra Nelson, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to serve as OSTP director. Both jobs had been held by geneticist Eric Lander, who announced on 7 February he was resigning after a White House investigation found “credible evidence” that Lander had bullied and disrespected staffers.
Biden said he plans to nominate a permanent replacement for Lander, who took office in May 2021, but gave no timeline. (Neither Collins nor Nelson will be the nominee, sources say.) In the meantime, Biden said, this temporary arrangement would “allow OSTP and [my] science and technology agenda to move seamlessly forward under proven leadership.”
Others, however, aren’t sure that splitting the OSTP and science adviser responsibilities is a good idea. “I don’t understand it, and it doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Neal Lane, an emeritus physics professor at Rice University who served as former President Bill Clinton’s science adviser while leading OSTP in the late 1990s. OSTP’s primary role is to provide the president with the best advice on scientific issues, Lane says, and the new arrangement, which Lane calls “an unprecedented experiment,” could undermine the office’s authority.
An OSTP spokesperson says Collins—who led NIH for 12 years before stepping down in December 2021—will focus on providing advice on “all things science” and will co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Collins will also take the lead in pushing two of Biden’s research priorities: winning congressional support to create and fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), and reinvigorating the Cancer Moonshot he led as vice president under former President Barack Obama. Collins will neither report to Nelson nor occupy an office within OSTP, the OSTP spokesperson says.
Nelson was promoted to oversee OSTP, an office with some 140 staff that provides technical expertise to the White House, coordinates research-related policies across the government, and generates numerous congressionally mandated reports. Her portfolio includes OSTP’s health and life sciences division, which is helping coordinate governmentwide efforts on both the ARPA-H and Cancer Moonshot initiatives.
To Lane, that overlap is a formula for bureaucratic confusion, if not gridlock. “Who’s in charge?” he asks. “If Francis isn’t reporting to Alondra, that raises serious questions.” Lane also wonders about the logistics. “Who goes to which meetings? Sending two people would be a huge investment in time and resources.” Lane fears that some senior administration officials might regard Nelson as Collins’s deputy, charged with keeping OSTP running, while Collins assumes a more visible public role.
But John Holdren, who served in both roles under Obama, doesn’t see the division of labor as a problem. “I think both Alondra and Francis are very collegial people and will work very well together,” Holdren says. “If the president wants advice in domains where Francis is not an expert, I have no doubt that he will talk to Alondra. I don’t see any glitches.”
Holdren thinks the arrangement also solves one problem created by Lander’s departure: the loss of a prominent scientist to lead the White House’s effort to persuade Congress to move forward on its agenda to find cures for dread diseases and improve public health. “Biden wanted someone of stature in biomedical research to lead the charge, and that is what Francis Collins represents,” Holdren says. “Lander was doing that, but those issues are not in Alondra Nelson’s wheelhouse.”
The dual appointments have drawn mixed reviews from biomedical research advocates. Collins’s long government tenure and easy rapport with Congress makes him an ideal candidate to push the health initiatives forward, says Ellen Sigal, founder and chair of Friends of Cancer Research. “There’s no one better than Francis,” she says. “I think it’s an excellent choice.”
At the same time, many lobbyists are unhappy with the administration’s plan to house ARPA-H within NIH, a position that Collins has espoused, and would prefer to see it located within NIH’s parent body, the Department of Health and Human Services. And several researchers complained about the Biden administration opting for yet another “old white dude” to be science adviser, reviving a criticism levied when Lander was named.
Nelson would be the first Black woman and first social scientist to lead OSTP. Trained as a sociologist, she was president of the Social Science Research Council before coming to OSTP. In her role as OSTP deputy director for science and society, her portfolio has included scientific integrity, broadening participation in science and engineering, and ensuring equitable access to new technologies. In accepting Biden’s invitation to join OSTP in January 2021, Nelson described science as “a social activity” and noted that “as a Black woman researcher, I’m keenly aware of who has been missing from the room.”
At the beginning of Biden’s term, much was made of his decision to elevate the OSTP director and science adviser to his Cabinet, a position typically reserved for the heads of major departments. But neither Collins nor Nelson—who do not require Senate confirmation to hold their new positions—will get Lander’s Cabinet seat. An OSTP spokesperson says whomever Biden nominates for the permanent position will have Cabinet status once confirmed.
Lane thinks having the OSTP head in the Cabinet is very important, because it gives science “a place at the table.” Holdren puts less stock in that honor, however. What’s important, Holdren says, is having access to the president, entrée that often comes with another title given to the science adviser: “assistant to the president.” Both Holdren and Lane held that title, but neither Collins nor Nelson do.