WASHINGTON – The White House called the workplace behavior of top scientist Dr. Eric Lander “inappropriate” Monday but defended keeping him in the administration despite President Joe Biden’s zero-tolerance pledge on staff conduct.
A workplace complaint last year prompted an internal review that found evidence Lander, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and science adviser to Biden, bullied staffers and treated them disrespectfully. On the first day of his administration, Biden directed his political appointees to treat everyone with “dignity and respect” and warned that if they don’t, “I will fire you on the spot.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a “full, thorough investigation” into the allegations occurred as a result of Biden’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy. She said senior White House officials conveyed directly to Lander that his behavior was “inappropriate” and that corrective actions were needed. She said the White House will monitor compliance.
“The president has been crystal-clear with all of us about his high expectations of how he and his staff should be creating a respectful work environment,” said Psaki, who defended the administration’s vetting of Lander before his nomination. “Our objective is, of course, to prevent any of this behavior from happening again.”
Politico first reported the allegations against Lander, whose position was elevated to Cabinet rank by Biden. His role has taken on greater prominence as the president pursues a Cancer Moonshot program to use federal resources to cut the nation’s cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years.
“Nothing about his behavior is acceptable to anyone here at all. Quite the opposite. Let me clear about that,” Psaki said after several reporters pressed her about Biden not following through on his workplace pledge to fire employees who disrespect others. “But there is now a process in place that was not in place at the time to evaluate and determine what next steps should be taken.”
The White House said that the review did not find “credible evidence” of gender-based discrimination and that the reassignment of the staffer who filed the original complaint was “deemed appropriate.”
In an email Friday to his staff reported by Politico, Lander apologized and said he realizes his conduct “reflects poorly on this administration.”
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“It’s my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It’s clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility,” Lander wrote in the email. “This is not only wrong, but also inconsistent with our Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy. It is never acceptable for me to speak that way. I am deeply sorry for my conduct. I especially want to apologize to those of you who I treated poorly or were present at the time.”
The founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Lander is a mathematician and molecular biologist. He was lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome, the “book of life.”
His confirmation to his role in the Biden administration was delayed for months as senators sought more information about meetings he had with Jeffrey Epstein, a disgraced financier who was charged with sex trafficking before his suicide in 2019.
Lander also was criticized for downplaying the contributions of two Nobel Prize-winning female scientists to gene editing technology. At his confirmation hearing last year, Lander apologized for a 2016 article he wrote that minimized the work of the female scientists. At the hearing, he also 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.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House on Lander: Psaki defends decision to keep top scientist