WASHINGTON — The Senate has confirmed geneticist Eric Lander to be President Joe Biden’s chief science adviser, one of the last unfilled Cabinet posts in the Biden administration.
Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was approved by a voice vote Friday to serve as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a position Biden has elevated to Cabinet rank. Lander, who also is a mathematician and molecular biologist, was lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome, the so-called “book of life.”
His nomination was delayed for months as senators sought more information about meetings he had with the late Jeffrey Epstein, a disgraced financier who was charged with sex trafficking before his apparent suicide. Lander also was criticized for downplaying the contributions of two Nobel Prize-winning female scientists.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Lander apologized for a 2016 article he wrote that downplayed the work of the female scientists and called Epstein “an abhorrent individual.”
Lander said he “understated the importance of those key advances” by biochemists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The two were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“I felt terrible about it, I made a mistake. And when I make a mistake, I own it and try to do better,” Lander said. “I should have written those paragraphs differently to make my intention crystal clear. I have enormous respect for Doctors Doudna and Charpentier and the important work they’ve done throughout their careers.”
He only met with Epstein twice, in 2012, Lander said, and never requested or received funds from Epstein or his foundation.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said at a May 20 committee meeting that she wished Biden had named a woman as science adviser, but that Lander had pledged to work to elevate women and minorities in science.
Lander said in a statement Friday that Biden’s elevation of the science post “made clear that science and technology will be central to solving the nation’s most urgent challenges,” including health, environmental quality “and justice for all Americans.”
Lander’s confirmation leaves Biden’s Cabinet nearly complete. The only remaining unfilled Cabinet post is that of Office of Management and Budget director. Shalanda Young has been serving as acting OMB director after her confirmation as deputy director. Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination for OMB head after several senators said they would not vote for her.