Biden Has Elevated the Job of Science Adviser. Is That What Science Needs?

On the campaign trail, Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed to unseat Donald J. Trump and bring science back to the White House, the federal government and the nation after years of presidential attacks and disavowals, neglect and disarray.

As president-elect, he got off to a fast start in January by nominating Eric S. Lander, a top biologist, to be his science adviser. He also made the job a cabinet-level position, calling its elevation part of his effort to “reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy.”

In theory, the enhanced post could make Dr. Lander one of the most influential scientists in American history.

But his Senate confirmation hearing was delayed three months, finally being set for Thursday.

The delay, according to Politico, arose in part from questions about his meetings with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who had insinuated himself among the scientific elite despite a 2008 conviction that had labeled him as a sex offender. Dr. Lander met with Mr. Epstein at fund-raising events twice in 2012 but has denied receiving any funding or having any kind of relationship with Mr. Epstein, who was later indicted on federal sex trafficking charges and killed himself in jail in 2019.

“Anyone coming to the science advisory post without considerable experience in politics is in for some rude shocks,” Edward E. David Jr., President Richard M. Nixon’s science adviser, said in a talk long after his bruising tenure. He died in 2017.

One day in 1970, Mr. Nixon ordered Dr. David to cut off all federal research funding to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. David’s alma mater. At the time, it was receiving more than $100 million a year.

The reason? The president of the United States had found the political views of the school’s president to be intolerable.

“I just sort of sat there dumbfounded,” Dr. David recalled. Back in his office, the phone rang. It was John Ehrlichman, one of Mr. Nixon’s trusted aides.

“Ed, my advice is don’t do anything,” he recalled Mr. Ehrlichman saying. The nettlesome issue soon faded away.

In 1973, soon after Dr. David quit, Mr. Nixon eliminated the fief. The president had reportedly come to see the adviser as a science lobbyist. After Mr. Nixon left office, Congress stepped in to reinstate both the advisory post and its administrative body, renaming it the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The position, some analysts argue, has grown more influential in step with scientific feats and advances. But others say the job’s stature has declined as science has become more specialized and the advisory work has focused increasingly on narrow topics unlikely to draw presidential interest. Still others hold that so many specialists now inform the federal government that a chief White House scientist has become superfluous.

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