Science

Biden’s nominee for science chief issues apology, defends character at confirmation hearing

Eric Lander, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the White House’s science office, apologized today to a U.S. Senate panel for “understating” the contributions of two female scientists to the discovery of the CRISPR gene-editing technology. But the molecular biologist and former head of the Broad Institute also mounted an aggressive defense of his character and suitability for the job during a 2-hour confirmation hearing that included pointed questions—from both Democrats and Republicans—about his past actions related to gender and controversial figures including Nobel laureate James Watson and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

“I felt terrible,” Lander told the Senate commerce and science committee about how he described the Nobel Prize–winning work of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in “Unsung Heroes of CRISPR,” a 2016 essay that appeared in Cell. “I made a mistake.”

In January, Biden nominated Lander, a molecular biologist and former head of the Broad Institute, to lead the Office of Science and Technology, and said he would also elevate the position to his Cabinet. But Lander’s confirmation hearing was reportedly delayed as the committee investigated Lander’s past. And in a twist, some of the harshest criticism today came from members of Biden’s own party.

In her opening statement as chair, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D–IL) cited three of her concerns: “downplaying the contributions” of Doudna and Charpentier; offering a public toast in 2018 to James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA known for making racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic remarks; “and attending lunch meetings with the late, disgraced Jeffrey Epstein.” She suggested Lander “use this hearing as an opportunity to explain how you have learned from your past mistakes.”

Lander appeared to heed that advice, at least with regard to the controversy over CRISPR. Senator Cynthia Lummis (R–WY) described a private conversation about the issue between her and Lander before the hearing. “It isn’t clear to me what your motives were,” Lummis said, “but it is clear that you wanted to make sure your lab got the patents and the credit for the CRISPR technology, and in the process you may have marginalized the contributions of two other scientists whose work was essential.” (Broad scientists have been involved in a fierce patent battle with Doudna and others over CRISPR patents.)

Lummis hadn’t framed her comments as a question, however, and had already relinquished the floor when Lander asked for time to respond. “This is a very important issue,” he told the committee before proceeding with a lengthy defense of his behavior.

“My goal was to show all their contributions,” Lander said about the 12 scientists he discussed in his Cell essay. “But in writing them up, I understated the importance of those key advances [by Doudna and Charpentier]. It wasn’t my intention. But when I make a mistake, I own it and try to do better. I have enormous respect for what they have done.”

Loomis seemed satisfied by his answer, thanking him for his “candor” and calling it “very helpful.”

The committee’s top Republican, Roger Wicker (MS), focused his attention on the last of Duckworth’s concerns, namely, Lander’s ties to Epstein, a convicted sex offender and science philanthropist whom Lander had met twice in 2012 as director of the Broad Institute. (Epstein committed suicide shortly after his 2019 arrest.) Specifically, Wicker said the committee had asked for 10 years’ worth of records on the institute’s donor but was still waiting for some of the material.

“We believe we sent you 8 years, which was what was available,” Lander said. “But I can ask if they can go back 2 more years.”

“We asked for 10 [years] for a reason,” Wicker pointed out, apparently alluding to the fact that those records would not have covered the period in 2012 when Lander first met with Epstein. Wicker then asked Lander to describe his second of two meetings with Epstein. Unlike in his response to Lummis, however, Lander offered no apologies for his behavior.

“Jeffrey Epstein was an abhorrent individual,” Lander said. “We never requested funds, we never received funds from him or his foundation.” Lander said his interactions with Epstein consisted of “two brief events” in the spring of 2012. “I did not know about her sordid history before that point,” Lander told Wicker. “As soon as I learned about it, I had nothing more to do with him.”

Lander’s toast of Watson, made at a celebration of Watson’s 90th birthday, did not get much attention during the hearing. Lander apologized for making the toast shortly after the event.

Despite their concerns about Lander’s personal history, the senators devoted most of their time to quizzing him on broader issues facing the country’s research enterprise. That gave Lander a chance to defend several of the president’s proposals to beef up federal spending on science.

He was especially emphatic about the need for a new agency within the National Institutes of Health, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H), that would accelerate technologies needed to conquer cancer and other dread diseases. Biden has asked Congress for $6.5 billion for ARPA-H, which Lander said would provide technology “platforms” that would close the gap between the fundamental research funded by NIH and the work of biotech companies to bring the most promising approaches to market.

Lander was somewhat less definitive about a proposal championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) to give $100 billion over 5 years to the National Science Foundation to foster development of a handful of emerging technologies. Lander danced around questions from Senator Ben Luján (D–NM), one of several lawmakers who thinks the Department of Energy’s national laboratories should get a big chunk of any such massive investment. Asked about the proper balance between the two agencies, Lander demurred, saying, “We need to strengthen all aspects of our research ecosystem.”

The panel is now expected to vote on whether to send Lander’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration. If the Senate confirms Lander, he will become the final Biden Cabinet nominee to take his post.

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