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President Biden’s science agenda is imploding

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President BidenJoe BidenBiden State of the Union: A plea for unity in unusual times Watch: Key moments from Biden’s first State of the Union address Five takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union address MORE promised to reinvigorate American science. After a tumultuous four years in which a populist upsurge, a bombastic president, and the worst public health crisis in a century had pushed the social contract between science and the public to the breaking point, he pledged to restore science to a place of preeminence in the federal government. Yet now, barely over a year into the Biden administration, the president’s science policy agenda is imploding. And it’s not — or not only — because of COVID-19, but because of poor leadership.

In the beginning, there were grand aspirations. Once in office, Biden unveiled a budget that would inject hundreds of billions of dollars into U.S. federal scientific institutions. He announced a “cancer moonshot.” He proposed two new federal science agencies — ARPA-H and ARPA-C, modeled on the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — devoted to biomedical and climate research, respectively. And he established a task force to “protect the integrity of government science.”

Biden also elevated the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to a cabinet-level department, led by Eric LanderEric LanderThe Hill’s Morning Report – Policies and politics on masks are changing Alondra Nelson and Francis Collins temporarily taking top White House science roles Overnight Energy & Environment — Virginia lawmakers block ex-Trump EPA chief MORE, the famed mathematician and geneticist. Lander, whom Biden charged with “reinvigorating American science,” would be the first White House science adviser with a background in the life sciences, and the first to sit in the president’s cabinet. He was confirmed in May 2021 and assumed leadership of the president’s science policy agenda.

Then, less than a year after taking up his post, Lander resigned after Politico reported that an internal investigation into Lander’s workplace conduct had found him guilty of bullying and demeaning staff. After mounting public pressure, Lander tendered his resignation — the first Biden cabinet official to leave office. 

OSTP’s problems don’t end there: Jane Lubchenco, who was rumored to be a potential pick for Lander’s replacement, herself came under scrutiny for violating scientific integrity principles. Apparently, Lubchenco — who, ironically, co-chairs OSTP’s Scientific Integrity Task Force — failed to disclose key conflicts of interest that contributed to the retraction of an influential paper in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

To quell the storm, the White House announced two interim appointments. Francis Collins, who retired from his longtime role as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last year, will temporarily serve as Biden’s top science adviser and co-chair the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Lander’s former job effectively will be split in two, with Alondra Nelson, the current OSTP deputy director for science and society, stepping in as OSTP director until a permanent replacement is found. 

The embattled OSTP now joins the ranks of other key science and technology agencies that currently lack (or only lately have acquired) permanent leadership.

Despite an ongoing global public health crisis, it took Biden over a year to finally succeed in appointing a commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And the search continues for a new NIH director. Meanwhile, the Patent and Trademark Office, vital to our nation’s innovation ecosystem, remains without a permanent director. Kathi Vidal, whom Biden nominated only last fall, still awaits confirmation. This, despite a recent Supreme Court decision requiring that the patent office director assume additional oversight of the agency’s administrative patent judges.

So, what of Biden’s ambitious science policy goals? ARPA-C found a cool reception among policymakers in Washington and was quickly and quietly taken off the agenda. Proposals to boost federal science funding became embroiled in political disagreements and are still slogging their way through Congress. And with Lander gone, the president’s signature science agenda items — from ARPA-H to the cancer moonshot to an ambitious new pandemic preparedness plan — all face uncertain futures.

Upon his election, Biden had a unique opportunity to help restore science to a place of respectability in federal politics. Now, leaderless, the administration’s science agenda risks collapsing, thanks to poor administrative decisions and staffing errors. Today, the hope that a new administration would usher in a golden age for American science appears to have dimmed. Sadly, a president whom the scientific community welcomed with “relief” after four years of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Texas primaries Five takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union address Five things Biden didn’t talk about in State of the Union MORE, has managed to draw heavy criticism from that same community only one year into his presidency.

So much for reinvigorating American science.

M. Anthony Mills is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.


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