On April 29, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing to discuss the nomination of Dr. Eric Lander as President Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a role that the President has elevated to Cabinet-level. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) chaired the hearing and in her opening remarks, she acknowledged Lander’s scientific accomplishments, but also noted concerns about past actions related to women and minorities in STEM fields. The hearing provided an opportunity to clear the record on these and other issues and to explore Dr. Lander’s positions and goals if confirmed as OSTP director.
In his prepared remarks, Dr. Lander discussed the importance of inclusion in science and technology, highlighting the uneven opportunity provided across gender, race, and geography and the often unwelcoming nature of careers in science to women and people of color. In his role at OSTP, if confirmed, Dr. Lander promised that OSTP’s work will be rooted in equity, that he will hire an OSTP staff that “resembles the American population,” and that the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will be “the most diverse in history.”
Questions from the Committee tackled a variety of topics, including OSTP’s role and plans related to climate change, scientific integrity, and pandemic recovery, as well as technologies of the future, cybersecurity, scientific workforce needs, disparity of NSF support to smaller institutions and smaller states, and enhancing partnerships with industry.
A committee vote on Dr. Lander’s nomination has not yet been scheduled.
President Biden has named Robert Santos, Vice President & Chief Methodologist at the Urban Institute, as his Administration’s choice to lead the Census Bureau. Santos, who is currently serving as the President of the American Statistical Association (ASA), a COSSA governing member, has had a distinguished career, holding positions at the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, NORC at the University of Chicago, and ISR Temple University. According to the White House press release, he has expertise in “survey sampling, survey design and more generally in social science/policy research.” Santos has also served on the advisory committees for the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics. If confirmed, Santos, who is Latinx, would be the first permanent director of color to lead the agency. He would take over from Acting Director Ron Jarmin, who has been leading the agency since the departure of Steven Dillingham (see previous coverage).
For the first time since taking office, the Biden Administration and 117th Congress can work without being consumed by the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill can now forge ahead on a COVID-19 relief package currently being negotiated and with confirmation hearings for Biden appointees. The House is looking to vote on a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package next week, which is expected to pass largely along party lines. The goal is for the House and Senate to send a completed package to the President by March 14 when current unemployment insurance relief expires. On the nominations front, President Biden’s picks to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Education, as well as Attorney General, are all still awaiting confirmation by the Senate. There will be a flurry of activity over the next few weeks to play catch up now that impeachment is complete.
On January 15, President-Elect Biden announced key members of his administration’s science and technology team. Dr. Eric Lander, a life scientist and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, will be nominated to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and to serve as the President’s Science Advisor. This role will also be elevated to Cabinet level for the first time.
Dr. Alondra Nelson, a prominent social scientist and President of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), a COSSA member, will be appointed to a new senior OSTP role: Deputy Director for Science and Society. Although details about the scope of this role are not yet available, it is expected that the new position will be broader and more senior than the role of Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, a position last filled during the Obama Administration.
Other notable members of the science team include Drs. Frances H. Arnold and Maria Zuber, external co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); Kei Koizumi, OSTP Chief of Staff; and Narda Jones, OSTP Legislative Affairs Director. In addition, the transition team announced that Dr. Francis Collins will stay on as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More details are available on the transition team website.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced his departure, effective January 20, eleven months before the end of his term. The announcement comes after whistleblower complaints came to light that Dillingham and senior political appointees were pressuring Census Bureau employees to rush the publication of a potentially “statistically indefensible” data report on noncitizens. Dillingham’s public announcement of his resignation included a response to questions posed by the Department of Commerce Inspector General’s Office regarding the noncitizens report. Dillingham’s announcement also notes that he has respect for President-elect Biden and had prepared, after requests from the Biden transition team, to stay on after the Presidential transition, but “I must do now what I think is best.” Census Bureau Deputy Director Ron Jarmin will again serve as acting director of the Bureau, a position he held for over a year prior to Dillingham’s nomination.
In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the appointment of Dr. Carrie Castille as the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Department’s extramural research agency. Dr. Castille has worked on Farm Production and Conservation as well as Rural Development within USDA and previously served as an Assistant Professor of Agriculture at Louisiana State University. Dr. Castille’s six-year term began on January 4, 2021. She succeeds Acting Director Parag Chitnis, who led the agency following J. Scott Angle’s departure in July 2020, two years into his six-year term.
On September 23 as a member of the steering committee of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, COSSA Executive Director Wendy Naus participated in a webinar (video recording) for Congressional staff featuring a discussion with Dr. Eliseo Perez-Stable, Director of the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The webinar is the first in a series organized by the Ad Hoc Group and the Coalition for Health Funding aimed at raising the visibility of NIH’s individual institutes and centers on Capitol Hill, specifically as their work relates to COVID-19 response. A second webinar featuring the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) occurred on September 30 (video recording). Videos from future webinars will be shared as they are released.
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Dr. Spiro Stefanou has been appointed to lead the Economic Research Service (ERS), one of the two principal statistics agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Stefanou is an agricultural economist who previously served as a professor of economics at the University of Florida and at Penn State University. Stefanou will be taking the helm of an agency that has had a rocky several years, after the Administration’s controversial decision to move the agency to Kansas City led to significant attrition and loss of expertise at the agency.
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On June 18, the Senate confirmed Sethuraman Panchanathan to be the 15th Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), an agency that had been without a Senate-confirmed director since France Córdova’s term expired in March. Panchanathan, who was nominated to lead the agency in January, holds a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering and serves as the Executive Vice President of Knowledge Enterprise Development and as Chief Research and Innovation Officer at Arizona State University. He has also served on the National Science Board since 2014.
The timeline for the Senate to consider Panchanathan’s nomination was delayed significantly by the transition away from in-person hearings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interim, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Kelvin Droegemeier served as Acting Director of NSF until Panchanathan was confirmed (see previous COSSA coverage for more details). More information on Panchanathan’s confirmation is available on the Senate website.
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The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has posted a vacancy announcement for the position of Chief Statistician of the United States, following the departure of former Chief Statistician Nancy Potok at the end of 2019. The Chief Statistician oversees OMB’s Statistical Policy and Science Branch and is responsible for implementing cross-agency data and statistics policies, including the Federal Data Strategy and the implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. The window for applications closes on June 29.
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