Reengineering Life

Vaccines Won’t Be the Only Priority as Biden’s Science Team Steps Up

Experts Eric Lander and Alondra Nelson will carry out an agenda focused on social justice and equality

Reengineering Life is a column from Future Human about the ways humans are using biology to reprogram our bodies and the world around us.

At a press conference on January 16, four days before his inauguration, incoming President Joe Biden announced the nomination of several members of his White House science team. Biden gave the top job of science adviser to geneticist and mathematician Eric Lander, PhD, and for the first time in history elevated the position to the president’s Cabinet.

The message was clear: Science will take a front seat in the Biden administration.

Lander will serve as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), replacing meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, PhD, who didn’t take office until two years into the Trump administration. It was the longest time a modern president had gone without filling the role since at least 1976, when Congress established the OSTP. The office advises the president on science and technology issues and coordinates related initiatives across government agencies.

Unlike President Trump, Biden wasted no time naming his science advisers. And there’s no shortage of pressing science issues for Biden’s new team to address. First and foremost is getting the Covid-19 pandemic under control and distributing vaccines as quickly as possible. There’s also the looming threat of climate change. But Biden’s priorities also include using science and technology to further the goals of equality and social justice.

“The benefits of science and technology remain unevenly distributed across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines,” Biden wrote in a January 15 letter to Lander. “How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?”

Lander, a pioneer in genetics, is president and founding director of the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genome research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, run jointly by Harvard University and MIT. He will take a leave of absence from the Broad to assume his new role. Previously, he was principal leader of the Human Genome Project, the 13-year international research effort that mapped our entire DNA code by its conclusion in 2003. During the Obama administration, Lander served as external co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The Broad Institute houses one of the largest genome sequencing centers in the world and is a highly influential hub for genetics research. Researchers at the Broad Institute have called for greater diversity in genetics datasets. Currently, genetics data is largely derived from people of European descent. More diverse datasets could unlock important insights on health and disease risk for people of other backgrounds. In one such initiative, the institute is conducting the largest psychiatric genetics study in Africa to better understand the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The Broad has also been conducting large-scale Covid-19 testing in hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities, college campuses, homeless shelters, and at-risk neighborhoods in Massachusetts and the surrounding region. Lander’s experience running such initiatives could be valuable in helping to advise the president on similar nationwide efforts.

With Lander’s extensive background in genetics, the U.S. government might soon pick up the pace on genetic sequencing to detect new variants of the coronavirus — an area where the country is currently lagging behind. Sequencing provides a readout of an organism’s entire genetic code so that it can be compared with others. Sequencing more coronavirus samples found in patients across the country could help scientists understand how the virus is evolving and mutating.

More sequencing power could help determine how widespread certain strains are and also identify new variants of the virus that may arise. It could also help inform policymakers about which communities are at highest risk of getting infected with these variants.

Lander has had his fair share of controversies. In 2016, he was criticized after writing an account of the gene-editing tool CRISPR that downplayed the crucial roles of two women scientists, Jennifer Doudna, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Instead, he focused on his Broad Institute colleague Feng Zhang, PhD. Doudna and Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year for their pioneering work. Lander also faced backlash in 2018 after publicly toasting James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, despite Watson’s history of racist and sexist comments. Lander later apologized for doing so and said he didn’t share Watson’s views.

And in an opinion piece in Scientific American published on January 21, the nonprofit group 500 Women Scientists, which aims to make science more inclusive and accessible, expressed disappointment in Biden’s science adviser pick, saying that Lander, a white man, “represents the status quo.”

During the January 16 press conference, Lander emphasized the need for everyone to “have a place at the table” — and at the lab bench.

“America’s greatest asset, I think, is our unrivaled diversity,” Lander said. “After all, scientific progress is about someone seeing something that no one’s ever seen before because they bring a different lens, different experiences, difference experiences, different passions.”

To help lead OSTP, Biden chose Alondra Nelson, PhD, as deputy director for science and society. Nelson, a Black woman, is a notable scholar who has studied the intersections of science, technology, social inequality, and racism and wrote the award-winning book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. She also leads the nonprofit Social Science Research Council and is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

At the press conference, Nelson highlighted the ways that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed deep resource gaps and medical disparities in our country. She also underscored the problem of bias in science and its harmful effects on minorities and other disadvantaged groups.

“As new technologies take root in our lives, from artificial intelligence to human genome editing, they reveal and reflect even more about the complex and sometimes dangerous social architecture that lies beneath the scientific progress we pursue,” Nelson said, adding that we have a responsibility to make sure that our science and technology “reflects all of us.”

Nelson will no doubt be focused on making sure the benefits of scientific advancements are shared equally among Americans. Whether the new administration will succeed at it is another thing. Biden has signaled that advancing racial equity will be at the top of his administration’s agenda, but it’s going to take more than four years to undo the systemic racism and discrimination that is deeply rooted in American society. However difficult the road may be, approaching science policy through the lens of social justice is a refreshing departure from the previous administration. Here at Future Human, we’re keen to keep an eye on how that plays out over the next four years.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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