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By: Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science & Innovation and Rhonda Moore, Practice Lead, Science & Innovation
After the last four years of relentless “alternative facts,” evidence-free policies, and major assaults on science, President Biden has much work ahead to restore the place of science in public policy and decision-making.
Although the word “science” did not appear in President Biden’s Inaugural Address, he is sending clear signals of its role in his agenda. As he stood on the steps of the Capitol, President Biden highlighted challenges such as attacks on democracy and truth, a raging virus, growing economic inequity, systemic racism, and a climate in crisis. Science will help address each of these.
In recent days, President Biden has also announced major players on his science team. First, he selected geneticist Eric Lander as his chief science advisor. For the first time in American history, President Biden has placed this position inside Cabinet, giving science a seat at the table during the Administration’s deliberations. Since the early Cold War when the position was first created, almost all Presidential Science Advisors have been drawn from the physical sciences, usually physics. Biden’s choice to select Lander further signals the importance of the life sciences, to address the pandemic and in what many suggest will be the Century of Biology. As science advisor, Lander directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that coordinates science and technology efforts across the federal departments and agencies.
President Biden selected sociologist Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and Harold F Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, for a new position at OSTP that will focus on the intersection of science and society. As a woman of color in a field long dominated by white men, Nelson brings diversity and an unprecedented focus on the social sciences and racial equity to the OSTP.
The President has chosen Frances Arnold and Maria Zuber to co-chair President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Arnold was the first woman to pull a hat trick by being elected to all three of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Zuber is a planetary geophysicist and vice-president of research at MIT. Another first for American science policy, this is the first time that two women will co-chair the U.S. government’s top external science advisory body. PCAST was created during the G.H.W. Bush administration in 1989 but had precursors dating back to the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s. In Canada, where scientific advisory mechanisms routinely come and go with no staying power, analysts can only dream of having such institutionalized science policy machinery at the top of government.
In Lander’s appointment letter, Biden pointed to the recent 75thanniversary of Science – The Endless Frontier, the famous report written by President Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, at the end of the Second World War. Roosevelt sought Dr. Bush’s advice on how the nation could continue to benefit from the mobilization of science during peacetime, as it had during the war. The report provided the postwar blueprint for U.S. science policy but now, seventy-five years on, many of its basic tenets are under strain. In his letter to Lander, Biden wrote: “I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.”
Although much of the detail of Biden’s science agenda is yet to be announced, he is clearly assembling a strong leadership team that will guide the nation’s science enterprise and ensure key policy decisions are informed by the best scientific evidence.
The IOG’s Science and Innovation team will monitor and report on developments over the first 100 days. We also invite you to learn about our major new research initiative – Beyond Endless Frontiers: Renewing the Social Contract between Science and Society. For more information, please contact Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science & Innovation, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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