President Joe Biden’s top science adviser, geneticist Eric Lander, has been reprimanded for bullying and demeaning women on his staff, according to a scathing piece this morning in Politico.
A 2-month White House investigation found “credible evidence” that Lander bullied one of his attorneys and disrespected and demeaned members of his 140-person staff in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), according to an audio recording obtained by Politico of a January briefing on the results of the probe. The news organization also spoke with 14 current and former staffers, including the attorney, Rachel Wallace, Lander’s former general counsel, who said his behavior drove some women to leave OSTP.
Another staffer not quoted by name told Politico Lander has a “Jekyll and Hyde personality,” pleasant in public meetings but harsh behind closed doors.
Lander emailed his staff an apology on Friday evening, Politico reported earlier, stating he was “deeply sorry” for speaking to staff “in a disrespectful or demeaning way.” An OSTP spokesperson told the publication that after the investigation found violations of the White House’s workplace policy, “corrective action was taken.” That action included requiring Lander to hold meetings with subordinates, according to Politico, and for all OSTP staff to take mandated trainings on the workplace policy. White House officials planned to review Lander’s behavior 30 to 45 days after the action was taken, Politico reported.
Lander is known as a brilliant but sometimes acerbic and abrasive leader who co-led the public human genome project and founded the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a genomics powerhouse. Biden’s decision to nominate Lander to the OSTP post drew fire from some critics, who noted Lander had a history of acrimony with other scientists and had been criticized for, among other things, writing a 2016 Cell essay that downplayed the role of two female scientists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, in developing the CRISPR gene-editing tool. In April 2021, Lander apologized for statements made in that essay during his Senate confirmation hearing. “I made a mistake,” Lander said. “I felt terrible.”
Lander also drew fire for once publicly toasting geneticist James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, despite Watson’s history of racist and misogynistic remarks, and meeting with Jeffrey Epstein, an investor and research philanthropist who had been convicted of sex offenses, while leading Broad. Those issues apparently delayed but did not derail the Senate’s confirmation of Lander.
Biden named Lander science adviser and OSTP director in one of his first actions as incoming president, and he also made the position part of his Cabinet. The scientific community heralded the actions as a sign the president would elevate the role of science in policymaking.
Lander has since been involved in the White House’s pandemic response, efforts to improve transparency about federally funded scientists’ undisclosed foreign ties, and the White House’s proposed new high-risk biological science funding agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).
On Tuesday, Lander is scheduled to appear before a health committee of the House of Representatives to discuss ARPA-H.