Genome-sequencing pioneer Eric Lander has resigned as President Joe Biden’s science adviser, following the revelation that he “bullied” one woman in his office and spoke to others in a “demeaning or abrasive” way.
Those are the key findings of a two-month internal White House investigation of Lander’s behavior toward staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), according to a recording of a briefing describing its findings obtained by Politico.
“The President accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening with gratitude for his work at OSTP on the pandemic, the Cancer Moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities,” White House Press Secretary Psaki said Monday evening. “He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.”
Pressed by reporters earlier in the day, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Lander had met senior White House officials “where it was made clear what steps he was required to take.” They would be “watching for compliance,” she added.
Lander tried to get ahead of the impact of the investigation's findings on Friday, emailing colleagues with a note of apology.
“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,” he wrote. “It's my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It's clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility. I have spoken to colleagues within OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning way.”
But pressure on Lander to step down grew as the scientific establishment and legislators reacted to the news of his behavior. Earlier today, the American Association for the Advancement of Science canceled plans for Lander to speak at its annual meeting, a highlight of the scientific calendar.
“AAAS is disappointed to learn about a White House investigation that reportedly found Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander is not conducting himself in a manner befitting a scientist or scientific leader — much less a cabinet-level leader in the administration,” the organization said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the House Science Committee, and Frank Lucas, its ranking Republican member, wrote to Biden asking for a copy of the investigation report, “to ensure the investigation was proper and comprehensive.”
The investigation followed a complaint made by Rachel Wallace, then general counsel at the OTSP and still its chief operating officer. Politico said it had spoken to 14 staff members at OSTP who described a “toxic work environment” and nine who said Lander “yelled and sometimes made people feel humiliated” in front of colleagues.
Before joining OSTP, Lander headed the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a powerhouse for “big science” biology that has attracted huge amounts of federal and philanthropic funding. He also served under Barack Obama as cochair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
But he has long been a divisive figure with a reputation for bruising encounters with rivals. After he was nominated in January 2021, BuzzFeed News documented a history of controversial incidents including bitter disputes with rivals during the sequencing of the human genome around the turn of the millennium.
“You can’t separate what he can do positively from his style of leadership, which is very aggressive,” Robert Cook-Deegan, a specialist in science policy at Arizona State University, who chronicled these “genome wars,” told BuzzFeed News at the time.
The fact that the OSTP staff Lander reportedly bullied were women was especially damning, viewed in the light of two previous controversies.
In 2016, critics charged that Lander downplayed the contributions of two women, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, in developing the revolutionary gene-editing method known as CRISPR. Instead, he highlighted the work of a Broad Institute colleague. Doudna and Charpentier were later awarded a Nobel prize. Then in 2018 Lander led a 90th birthday toast to James Watson, codiscoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, despite Watson’s record for making sexist and racist comments.
In his remarks when introduced as Biden’s nominee for science adviser, Lander stressed his commitment to diversity. “No one can top America in that regard — but we have to ensure that everyone not only has a seat at the table, but a place at the lab bench,” he said.
When he was appointed, supporters and detractors alike noted that Lander would have unprecedented power for a presidential science adviser, with the post being elevated to the Cabinet level for the first time. Biden told Lander to focus on issues including public health lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, tackling climate change, and ensuring the US can compete technologically, especially with China.
His most obvious contribution since then was a guidance document issued last month, which sought to protect US intellectual property from Chinese interests while fostering international collaboration and avoiding discrimination against scientists of Chinese heritage.
“I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them,” Lander wrote in his resignation letter.