Harvard Medical School Prof Named Obama Adviser

A leading Harvard geneticist who spearheaded the Human Genome Project will co-chair the incoming administration’s science and technology advisory council, President-elect Barack Obama announced over the winter break.

Eric S. Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute—a joint venture between Harvard and MIT for genetic research applied to medicine—will assist Obama on issues such as global warming and research funding as co-chair of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“Science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation,” Obama said before announcing the picks during his weekly radio broadcast. “It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and work to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.”

Lander will join a host of prominent scientists Obama has named as scientific advisers, including former National Institute of Health director Harold E. Varmus and Harvard climate and energy professor John P. Holdren, who will also be co-chairs on the council.

“Eric Lander and Harold Varmus are inspired appointments,” University Provost and former National Institute of Mental Health director Steven E. Hyman said in an e-mail. “They will work well with John Holdren to restore the highest scientific values to the nation’s research and technology enterprise.”

Obama named Holdren last Friday as his choice for assistant to the president for science and technology in addition to his position on the advisory council.
In a statement released by MIT, Lander called the appointment both an honor and a responsibility to serve the nation.

“I can’t think of a time when the problems and challenges facing the country—environment and energy, health care, education—had more to do with science and technology than they do today,” he said.

Lander will co-chair the advisory group on a part-time basis and continue as director of the Broad Institute, according to the statement. He did not return requests for comment early last week.

Lander is best known as a leading contributor to the Human Genome Project, a collaborative effort among scientists around the world to fully document the genetic makeup of a human being.

Lander’s role in the project catapulted him to scientific prominence, even earning him a spot on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of our time in 2004. The same year, he launched the Broad Institute to find applications for the new wealth of genetic data he helped obtain.

It remains to be seen what role Lander and his colleagues from academia will play in the policy-making process though in their advisory positions. According to Harvard Kennedy School professor Sheila Jasanoff, Lander is more likely to be called upon to discuss scientific priorities or related controversies than to involve himself in day-to-day decision-making.

“The president cannot be expected to know what the opportunities and risks are at the cutting edges or moving frontiers in whole areas like genomics, biomedicine, or climate,” Jasanoff said. “These advisers are in the position to form his opinion and guide him on these issues.”

But the mere appointment of renowned scientists to advisory posts early in the transition process signals a change in the executive branch’s attitude toward science from the previous administration, she said. To a large extent, their presence is meant to reassure the country that policymakers at the highest level will value scientific expertise when deciding how to address climate change and genetic research.

“These are very important questions,” Jasanoff said, “and the President will be a phone call away from people who are well-positioned to answer them.”

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at ajiang@fas.harvard.edu.