An axiom of politics is that the higher you rise, the harder you can fall. This week, Eric Lander, the first White House science adviser to be elevated to the president’s Cabinet, learned that firsthand. Lander, a prominent geneticist who has a close relationship with President Joe Biden, resigned from his position less than 1 day after a media report revealed a workplace investigation had found “credible evidence” Lander had bullied, disrespected, and demeaned members of his staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
“I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them,” Lander wrote in his 7 February resignation letter. “I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to reach our shared goals—including at times challenging and criticizing. But it is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women.” Lander said he would stay until 18 February to allow a smooth transition.
There was little public indication that Lander was under scrutiny until someone leaked the results of the bullying investigation to Politico; even some of OSTP’s roughly 140 staffers tell Science they were caught by surprise. Research advocates, however, have already begun to speculate about who might replace Lander and what, if anything, his departure will mean for a host of Biden’s initiatives, including plans to create a new biomedical research agency and boost green energy and climate science.
Some observers aren’t surprised Lander’s tenure imploded after less than 275 days. Although he is a brilliant scientist—known for co-leading the public effort to sequence the human genome and founding the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a genomics powerhouse—Lander has a reputation for appearing egocentric, abrasive, and insensitive. He also drew fire for downplaying, in a 2016 Cell essay, the role of two female scientists in developing the CRISPR gene-editing technology. (Lander later apologized for the essay.)
Such issues led some to criticize Biden for nominating him—and Lander’s manner apparently led to his downfall. According to Politico and White House officials, in September 2021, an OSTP attorney, Rachel Wallace, filed a complaint against Lander and “other OSTP leadership,” alleging they had disparaged staff and demoted Wallace after she criticized such behavior. A 2-month investigation concluded that Wallace’s reassignment was not improper and found no evidence of gender-based discrimination. But in a recording of a January White House meeting given to Politico, officials described Lander’s behavior as “very, very serious” violations of White House policies on creating a “safe and respectful workplace.” They required “corrective” actions that included trainings and having Lander meet with staff, and pledged to review the matter in 30 to 45 days.
Three days before Politico ran its 7 February bombshell, Lander sent an email apologizing for his behavior to OSTP staff. But it was too little, too late. After the story appeared, pressure grew on the administration to act. At a televised White House press conference, a reporter asked why Biden had not removed Lander, given the president’s pledge to fire any appointee who disrespected colleagues, “on the spot, no ifs, ands, or buts.” The science committee of the House of Representatives issued a bipartisan request to review the investigation. AAAS (publisher of Science) disinvited Lander from speaking at its annual meeting. Within hours, Lander had submitted his resignation.
That outcome didn’t surprise physicist Neal Lane, science adviser to former President Bill Clinton. “He hurt a lot of people,” he says. “On top of that, he hurt the president, which is a mortal sin.”
Although OSTP is a small office with relatively little clout, observers say Lander deserves credit for helping advance important research policies. He has promoted plans for a new agency to fund high-risk medical research, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. And OSTP has been in the middle of efforts to devise new rules aimed at curbing improper foreign influence in U.S.-funded research.
Some believe any damage to such efforts, including a renewed cancer research “moonshot,” will be short-lived. Lander’s “behavior is regrettable, but it doesn’t mean these programs will grind to a halt,” says Mary Woolley, president of the biomedical research advocacy group Research!America. “These big things don’t depend on a single person.”
“OSTP will get past this,” says Chris Fall, former head of OSTP’s national security division and now vice president for applied science at MITRE Corp. “The only real source of the [OSTP] director’s authority,” he notes, is the president. So, “If the president wants something done, it’ll happen.”
Still, it’s not clear whether Lander’s replacement will be able to replicate his relationship with Biden. The two men have known each other for decades, and worked together on issues such as cancer research. “Given how much attention science and innovation are getting these days, [that kind of relationship] matters,” one lobbyist says.
Observers say one person who might get the OSTP director’s job, at least on an interim basis, is marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under former President Barack Obama and now handles climate change issues at OSTP. A permanent replacement will need Senate confirmation, and federal rules allow an interim head to serve for some 9 months, so it may be some time before Biden announces a nominee.
In the meantime, Lander’s rocky tenure in the White House demonstrates that a key part of the OSTP job is “building relationships and coalitions,” the lobbyist says. “At Broad [Lander] could rule his own kingdom. But in the White House you have lots of colleagues who also hold sway … and his effectiveness was clearly hampered by how he treated other White House officials and his own staff.”