President Joe Biden’s newly installed science adviser says he understands why scientists are baffled by rules intended to prevent other nations from unfairly benefiting from U.S. science. In recent years, the U.S. government has cracked down on requiring federally funded scientists to report any sources of foreign funding—and has even prosecuted some who failed to follow the rules. But the effort has forced them to navigate a mélange of requirements, and Eric Lander thinks the government can do better.
“It’s very hard to figure out what you’re supposed to be disclosing,” Lander told ScienceInsider yesterday during a wide-ranging interview conducted on his first day on the job as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). “Agencies have different rules, and their definitions also vary.”
Lander believes researchers would be happy to comply with a simpler system of disclosure—such as a digital record of their research activities updated on a quarterly basis. “What if there were an electronic CD that contained all my grants, my papers, my collaborations, and any stock holdings and whatever?” he says. “Boy, would I love that.”
How the United States might better monitor foreign influence was one of several topics Lander addressed during a 30-minute phone interview that included Biden’s recent budget request, government efforts to make research results freely available to all, and his plans for staffing OSTP.
A bumpy confirmation
Lander, 64, is a mathematician turned geneticist who co-chaired the White House’s panel of scientific advisers under former President Barack Obama. Biden nominated him in January to lead OSTP and serve in his Cabinet. But he wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until 28 May, and he was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on 2 June.
Lander’s confirmation process was delayed, in part, by concerns about some of his past actions. At his 29 April confirmation hearing, several Senators raised questions about incidents that took place when he was director of the Broad Institute, a research facility run jointly by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In particular, they criticized his comments about two pioneers of the CRISPR gene-editing tool who went on to win a 2020 Nobel Prize and his interactions with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, an investor and research philanthropist who killed himself after being arrested in 2019. During the hearing, Lander apologized for appearing to slight contributions by CRISPR developers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier and said he cut off further interactions with Epstein after learning of his 2008 conviction.
Now that he has won confirmation, Lander faces a host of issues as chief of OSTP, which is traditionally charged with coordinating U.S. government research policy and incubating new funding and policy initiatives. One front-burner issue for the U.S. research community is how the government will monitor and regulate foreign influence.
In 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration launched the China Initiative, which it said was aimed at preventing Chinese authorities from stealing the fruits of government-funded research. But almost all of the U.S. scientists affected by the initiative have been charged with lying about their funding ties to Chinese entities, not with espionage or theft of intellectual property. And many scientists think the government has engaged in racial profiling in selecting its targets.
Lander declined to say whether the initiative should be curtailed or ended and whether he thinks U.S. scientists of Chinese ancestry have been singled out. Instead, he said, “I don’t want to see [research security] used as a tool to foster anti-Asian sentiment. One of this country’s great assets is that we are a magnet for the world’s talent. And I don’t want to lose that asset.”
He also said he thinks the government can make it easier for scientists and universities to comply with reporting requirements. “I don’t want every university to have its own system,” he says. “That would be a terrible burden, and it wouldn’t be secure. But if we had something straightforward, it wouldn’t bother me at all to get a reminder every 3 months to update my records.”
“I believe that we can create a system that is clear, nonburdensome, and secure,” Lander continued. “And I think most people want to be transparent and would comply with such a system.”
New research entities
Lander also discussed proposals in Biden’s recent 2022 budget request to Congress that would create several new funding entities aimed at translating basic research discoveries into practical tools. In particular, he touted the promise of a new agency within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to accelerate cures for deadly diseases and fund other transformative health projects.
Lander said the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), for which Biden has requested $6.5 billion over 3 years, will address “the stuff in the middle between our amazing foundational research at NIH and our amazing biotech industry.” NIH has shown it can move quickly on big projects, he said, citing its support last year for rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines and its funding in the 1990s to sequence the human genome. But he said ARPA-H would “institutionalize” such efforts.
Those earlier initiatives “were proofs of concept,” he said. “But they were done on an ad hoc basis. Imagine a distinct division within NIH, with its own culture, that didn’t have to wait for a pandemic to do its thing.”
ARPA-H, he said, could help make it possible for the country to produce a vaccine against the next pandemic—designed, tested, approved, and manufactured at scale—within 100 days rather than taking a year. “There’s no reason that can’t happen,” he asserted. “There are only 25 classes of human viruses. So what we have to do is stay focused on investing in a sustained infrastructure, to make sure that we never let this happen again.”
Biden’s budget also proposes an ARPA-Climate for research that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop technologies for a sustainable economy. The new agency would draw on a $500 million pot created by eight federal departments, and OSTP would be responsible for coordinating its activities.
But Lander says his office is focused on an even bigger national challenge that Biden has laid out: achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Ten years ago, people couldn’t see a way to do such a thing,” he said. “But in the last decade, with dramatic decreases in the cost of solar panels and other elements in the equation, we are beginning to see solutions. OSTP’s greatest strength is to coordinate among all the government’s research and development efforts, providing incentives for innovation and priming the pump for the technologies that will get us there.”
Lander’s predecessor, Kelvin Droegemeier, led a governmentwide review of policies affecting when the public could access government-funded research results. The current policy generally allows journals to keep papers behind a subscription paywall for up to 12 months before providing free access. But some research advocates want to eliminate any waiting period.
That review is still underway, Lander said. And although he didn’t tip his hand, he did indicate a personal preference.
“I’m a very big supporter of open access, and I’d love to see the time be as short as possible,” Lander said about such a shift in policy. “Because once research is available, other people can pick it up and do more research, and we can speed that cycle of discovery.”
Lander said shortening the 12-month waiting period “bears some looking at. … It’s an important topic, and I know Alondra [Nelson, OSTP’s deputy director for science and society] is focusing on it.”
With respect to staffing OSTP, Lander said the office “is growing back to the size it has been” under previous Democratic administrations. Droegemeier managed a much leaner operation than his predecessor, John Holdren, who served under Obama and stretched its roughly $6-million-a-year budget by borrowing dozens of scientists from other government agencies. And Lander said “very soon” he would be rolling out the members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In January, Biden named chemistry Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and MIT astrophysicist Maria Zuber as co-chairs of the panel.