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US President Joe Biden sets out his science agenda

Jan 25, 2021
In The News

US President Joe Biden has signed a raft of executive orders to begin reversing several initiatives by former US president Donald Trump. On Wednesday, Biden – in his first day in office – re-joined the Paris climate accord and set out a national strategy to get the coronavirus pandemic under control.

The moves follow the appointment of the geneticist Eric Lander last week as his science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In a further sign of Biden’s focus on science, which is expected to differ from that of former presi­dent Donald Trump, Biden also elevated the science adviser position to the cabinet.

Lander earned a DPhil in mathe­matics from the University of Oxford and taught managerial economics at Harvard Business School. He then moved into life science, founding the genome centre at the Massachu­setts Institute of Technology (MIT) Whitehead Institute, playing a sig­nificant role in the Human Genome Project in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2003 he founded the Broad Insti­tute, a collaboration between Har­vard and MIT that applies genomics to human health. Lander also co-chaired Barack Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

In a letter released by his office, Biden asked Lander to focus on five priorities including the impact of the pandemic; climate change; and how the US can ensure its scientific leadership. “He is an outstanding choice,” former presi­dential science adviser and physicist Neal Lane told Physics World.

Biden has also announced that Francis Collins will remain as direc­tor of the National Institutes of Health, a position he has held since 2009. Both his and Lander’s appoint­ments will require confirmation by the Senate. In addition, Biden has named chemistry Nobel laureate Frances Arnold from the California Institute of Technology and Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist who is MIT’s vice-president of research, as external co-chairs of PCAST.

Focus on the climate

Before the science adviser announcement, Biden had already signalled his intention to focus on climate change. Former secretary of state John Kerry, who helped to negotiate the Paris climate agree­ment, has been nominated as a cli­mate envoy for national security, while former Environmental Pro­tection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy has been appointed “climate tsar” in the White House. Jennifer Granholm, a former gover­nor of Michigan, is pegged as energy secretary.

“She is a proven leader and advocate for renewable energy tech­nology, like research into advanced battery technology at Argonne National Laboratory that is essential in our fight against climate change,” says Illinois Democratic Congress­man and physicist Bill Foster.

Other nominees include Michael Regan, secretary of North Carolina’s Environmental Quality Depart­ment, for EPA administrator. He previously held positions in the EPA under presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush.“

In the past, cli­mate policy has often been confined to the EPA and the Department of Energy,” says Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann. “Biden’s appointments sug­gest a multi-agency approach, incor­porating climate-forward policies in other government departments.”

Yet the new administration will face problems fulfilling its scientific agenda. “Repairing the damage done by the Trump administration will take time,” says Lane, an emeri­tus professor at Rice University. Indeed, the Trump administration continued to loosen environmental regulations during its final days in a way that makes it difficult to reverse the decisions.

The 50–50 division of the Senate will also make the admin­istration vulnerable to demands from the Democratic Party’s pro­gressive wing as well as Republicans suspicious of government deficit financing.

“We’ll have to make some concessions if we are to win climate legislation in the US over the next couple of years,” says Mann. How­ever, Lane points out that most sci­ence and technology policy issues, such as R&D funding, have usually been bipartisan. “So working across party lines on science-related issues should be easier,” he says.