Human genome expert to join the Cabinet as Biden brings science and technology back to the table

America's 46th president wants to use government policy and technology to address social justice, climate change, and economic prosperity.

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President Joe Biden has added a science advisor to his Cabinet and wants tech leaders to help solve the country's biggest problems including climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and social justice.

Image: Bet_Noire

President Joe Biden is making science part of the decision-making process again by adding the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to his Cabinet. Biden asked Eric Lander to lead the OSTP. Lander was one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project and is now the president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He also was the co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for President Barack Obama. 

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA, said he looks forward to working with the new OSTP and providing a forward-thinking approach to how tech can continue to serve as a tool for helping the country.

SEE: Big data's role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"President-elect Biden's decision to elevate the Office of Science and Technology Policy to Cabinet level reflects tech's vital role in solving pressing challenges—from creating a cleaner environment to conquering the pandemic," he said.

In his nomination letter to Lander, Biden asked the researcher to consider five specific questions and recommend general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt to support these priorities. The five questions are:

  1. What can we learn from the pandemic about what is or ought to be possible to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?
  2. How can breakthroughs in science and technology create new solutions to address climate change--propelling market-driven change, jump-starting economic growth, improving health, and growing jobs, especially in communities that have been left behind?
  3. How can the US ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?
  4. How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?
  5. How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?

Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the FCC and currently a visiting fellow with the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, said that adding the head of the OSTP to the Cabinet sends the message that science and technology are guiding principles again after four years of an administration that took the opposite approach. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine both applauded Lander's appointment. Lander is known for his scientific accomplishments but also for his combative management style. Colleagues have accused him of rewriting the history of CRISPR and downplaying contributions of the two women who won a Nobel prize in 2020 for their work on the gene-editing technology

Wheeler also was on the Obama transition team. He said the new government was facing one existential crisis back in early 2008: The economic collapse. He described the five enormous problems the incoming Biden administration faces:

  1. A global pandemic
  2. Economic problems due to the pandemic
  3. A call for social justice
  4. Ongoing climate change
  5. Government agencies that have been hollowed out over the last four years

Wheeler said that the new administration should focus on how technology can help provide solutions to these existential crises.

"An easy one to envision is broadband policy: Connecting those who are not connected because they don't have access or or they can't afford it; that one thing hits four of those issues," he said. 

Wheeler said it's time for government leaders to start using policy to put guardrails around all forms of technology

"It's the innovators who always make the rules early on until those rules begin to infringe on the right of others and the public interest," he said. "That time is now."

This new approach should apply across the board to everything from artificial intelligence to Section 230 to net neutrality, Wheeler said. He was a chief architect of net neutrality during his five years as FCC chairman.

He also said that government policies and the policy-making process should adopt an agile approach, just as many digital companies do. 

The existing government regulatory agencies that we know today were created in response to the Industrial Revolution, he said, which resulted in a rules-based hierarchy and a rigid process.

"That structure is handicapped when it comes to dealing with the need for agile, adaptive oversight to handle a rapidly changing tech and marketplace reality," he said. "How do we bring agile regulation into government? That will be the challenge."

Wheeler said digital companies have been able to make the rules for themselves because only those leaders had the vision to see where the industry was going.  

"Big Tech was unfathomable to most Americans as well those who represent them in Congress," he said. "We're getting to the point now that the people are aware that their rights are being abused and therefore their representatives are similarly coming up to speed."

Priorities for the Biden administration

At CES 2021, National Economic Council Director-Designate Brian Deese spoke with CES President Gary Shapiro about Biden's tech and economic priorities. Deese will be part of the Cabinet and will help shape economic policy decisions. Deese said Biden wants to reinvest in manufacturing and research and development.

He said the COVID-19 vaccine is "a testament to technology and science," but added that the operational challenge of "getting the vaccines into people's arms will be one of the most costly and complex issues in our country's history." He said tech companies can help with the public health response.

During the Trump administration, the OSTP focused on quantum computing and artificial intelligence. An administration official attended CES 2020 to talk about new guidelines for artificial intelligence (AI). In August 2020, the White House, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced more than $1 billion in funding for 12 new AI and QIS research and development (R&D) institutes nationwide.

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...