Joe Biden’s top science adviser, Eric Lander, resigned on Monday, hours after the White House confirmed an internal investigation found credible evidence he mistreated his staff. It was the first cabinet-level departure of the Biden administration.
An internal review prompted by a workplace complaint found evidence that Lander, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and science adviser to Biden, bullied staffers and treated them disrespectfully.
The White House reprimanded Lander but signaled he would be allowed to stay, despite Biden’s assertion on inauguration day that he expected ‘honesty and decency’ and would fire anyone disrespectful to others “on the spot”.
Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Biden accepted Lander’s resignation with “gratitude for his work at OTSP on the pandemic, Cancer Moonshot, climate change and other key priorities.”
Lander, in his resignation letter, said: “I am devastated that I have hurt colleagues past and present by the manner in which I have spoken to them. I believe it is not possible to continue effectively in my role, and the work of this office is far too important to be hindered.
The White House said Biden did not ask for Lander’s resignation. Earlier, Psaki said senior officials had met with Lander but indicated he would be allowed to stay on, saying the administration was following a “process” for handling workplace complaints.
“Following the conclusion of the thorough investigation into these actions, senior White House officials directly advised Dr. Lander that his behavior was inappropriate and the corrective action that was necessary, which the White House will monitor for compliance in the future. “, she said.
“The President has been very clear with all of us about his high expectations for how he and his staff should create a respectful work environment.”
The White House said Lander and OSTP would be required to take corrective action. He also said the review did not find “credible evidence” of gender discrimination and that the reassignment of the staff member who lodged the complaint was “deemed appropriate”.
Lander issued an apology to staff members, acknowledging “I spoke to colleagues at OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning manner.”
“I am deeply sorry for my conduct,” he added. “I especially want to apologize to those of you whom I treated poorly or who were present at the time.”
The White House review was completed weeks ago but was only confirmed after a Politico report.
Biden’s “safe and respectful workplace policy” was meant to contrast with how Donald Trump and his aides treated each other and their political enemies.
Lander’s conduct and the White House’s decision to back him caused consternation. On Monday night, Lander came to believe he was in an untenable position and quit.
There are five Deputy Directors in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kei Koizumi is the Deputy Director of Policy. Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco is the deputy for climate science. Sally Benson is the energy assistant. Carrie Wolinetz is associate director for health and life sciences. Alondra Nelson is the Deputy Director for Science and Society.
The world’s largest general science society uninvited Lander to speak at its annual meeting. American Association for the Advancement of Science chief executive Sudip Parikh said he wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the resignation.
“Hopefully we sent the right message about what’s important,” Parikh said. “The time for letting go of these things is over. Not just in science, but in workplaces across America.
“This is an administration that has invested much of its political capital in science and technology. It is a difficult role to fill. It is very possible and very likely that this person is a woman.
Lander, whose position was elevated to cabinet status by Biden, appeared prominently with the president last week when he relaunched his “Cancer Moonshot” program.
Founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Lander is a mathematician and molecular biologist. He was the main author of the first article announcing the details of the human genome, the so-called “book of life”.
His confirmation was delayed for months as senators sought information about meetings he had with the late Jeffrey Epstein, a disgraced financier accused of sex trafficking. Lander has also been criticized for downplaying the contributions of two Nobel Prize-winning women scientists.
During her confirmation hearing, Lander apologized for a 2016 article that downplayed the work of women scientists. He also called Epstein “a heinous individual”.
Lander said he “underestimated the importance of these key breakthroughs” by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. Both received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Lander’s departure echoes the February 2021 resignation of a deputy White House press secretary, TJ Ducklo, following threatening conversations with a reporter.