As one of its last actions before leaving Washington, DC, on May 28, 2021, for a week at home with constituents, the U.S. Senate finally confirmed ASCB member Eric Lander to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Lander was the last member of the President’s cabinet awaiting approval by the Senate.
On April 29, 2021, Lander appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation for a hearing on his nomination. As soon as the hearing began, it became clear that committee members had difficult questions that had delayed the hearing. At some point many years ago, Lander had met with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier who was convicted of sex crimes and indicted for sex trafficking, who had an interest in science and often funded research. In preparation for the hearing, the committee had requested information related to Lander’s two brief meetings with Epstein but had not received everything it had asked for. In addition, some committee members were uncomfortable with the way Lander had downplayed the importance of research done by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in the development of the CRISPR gene-editing technique.
Once those issues were addressed, the tone of the hearing changed. It was clear that Lander had made a very positive impression on the committee members on both sides of the aisle during the personal conversations he had leading up to the hearing.
The questioning turned to Lander’s views of a wide range of topics facing the American scientific community. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), who has been a strong supporter of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, discussed the need for an agency within the NIH resembling the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Blunt wanted to know what role Lander envisioned for such an entity. Lander said he thought there was a great need for the development of platforms and mentioned Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program as an example.
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) also asked Lander his views on a series of ideologically charged science topics. Lee’s list included research using fetal tissue, research using live embryos, three-parent embryos, germline genome editing, and artificial womb gestation.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also asked about Lander’s views on support for women in science and early-stage investigators.
It is the custom at Senate nomination hearings that Senators from a nominee’s home state introduce the nominee to the committee. Both Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced Lander. At the close of her remarks, in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff remark, Warren told the committee, “Eric is fun!”
About the Author:
Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org