Democrats, Republicans press Biden’s top scientist on gender, race and Epstein connection

President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the White House’s top technology office pledged Thursday to advance equity and diversity in science, amid mounting concerns from both Republicans and Democrats about his record on race and gender issues and his past meetings with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

A Cabinet appointment in peril: Eric Lander, Biden’s pick for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during a nomination hearing that he would “make full inclusion and equitable outcomes a high priority” for the office, including “ensuring that OSTP staff will look like America.” And he sought to assuage concerns about gatherings he and other scientists attended in 2012 with Epstein, whom he said he chose to have “no association” with.

“The sum total of my interactions was that I met him briefly at two events within the span of three weeks in the spring of 2012,” Lander said during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, adding he wasn’t aware of the wealthy financier’s “sordid history” at the time. Epstein had been a convicted sex offender since 2008.

Both the top Democrat and top Republican on the panel have expressed concern about Lander’s nomination due to his interactions with Epstein, POLITICO has reported, while other lawmakers have questioned his past treatment of fellow female scientists and his embrace of a notable biologist accused of espousing racist and sexist views.

“The Epstein connection is of tremendous concern to us,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said at Thursday’s hearing.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), the first Thai American woman elected to Congress, said she is “troubled” about those incidents, as well as allegations Lander has downplayed the role female scientists played in developing breakthrough genetics technology.

“The bottom line is that if confirmed you will have the authority to promote the representation of women and minorities in STEM fields, so I strongly encourage you to use this hearing as an opportunity to explain how you’ve learned from your past mistakes,” Duckworth said.

Lander on Thursday acknowledged he “understated” the work of two female scientists, 2020 Nobel Prize winners Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, in a 2016 paper about the “pioneers” behind the landmark CRISPR gene-editing technology.

“I made a mistake, and when I make a mistake I own it and try to do better,” he said in response to questions from Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).

The controversies threaten Lander’s confirmation to be OSTP director, a role that Biden is raising to the Cabinet level for the first time. Lander is the only Cabinet nominee who has yet to be confirmed.

A striking contrast: The controversy over Lander’s handling of issues of race and gender arrives as the Biden administration has pushed to make advancing equity in the U.S. and boosting diversity in the ranks of the federal government one of its top priorities.

Lawmakers had called on Biden to appoint a woman or person of color to the OSTP director spot and other top science roles in the executive branch, given that those demographics have traditionally been underrepresented in those positions and in STEM fields more broadly.

Hundreds of female scientists in January wrote an open letter opposing Lander’s nomination, which they said showed that the “glass ceiling in American science remains intact.”

The group applauded efforts the Biden administration has taken to boost diversity in federal office, but said the Lander pick “fails to meet the moment” and “exemplifies the status quo.”

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President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the White House’s top technology office pledged Thursday to advance equity and diversity in science, amid mounting concerns from both Republicans and Democrats about his record on race and gender issues and his past meetings with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

A Cabinet appointment in peril: Eric Lander, Biden’s pick for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during a nomination hearing that he would “make full inclusion and equitable outcomes a high priority” for the office, including “ensuring that OSTP staff will look like America.” And he sought to assuage concerns about gatherings he and other scientists attended in 2012 with Epstein, whom he said he chose to have “no association” with.

“The sum total of my interactions was that I met him briefly at two events within the span of three weeks in the spring of 2012,” Lander said during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, adding he wasn’t aware of the wealthy financier’s “sordid history” at the time. Epstein had been a convicted sex offender since 2008.

Both the top Democrat and top Republican on the panel have expressed concern about Lander’s nomination due to his interactions with Epstein, POLITICO has reported, while other lawmakers have questioned his past treatment of fellow female scientists and his embrace of a notable biologist accused of espousing racist and sexist views.

“The Epstein connection is of tremendous concern to us,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said at Thursday’s hearing.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), the first Thai American woman elected to Congress, said she is “troubled” about those incidents, as well as allegations Lander has downplayed the role female scientists played in developing breakthrough genetics technology.

“The bottom line is that if confirmed you will have the authority to promote the representation of women and minorities in STEM fields, so I strongly encourage you to use this hearing as an opportunity to explain how you’ve learned from your past mistakes,” Duckworth said.

Lander on Thursday acknowledged he “understated” the work of two female scientists, 2020 Nobel Prize winners Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, in a 2016 paper about the “pioneers” behind the landmark CRISPR gene-editing technology.

“I made a mistake, and when I make a mistake I own it and try to do better,” he said in response to questions from Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).

The controversies threaten Lander’s confirmation to be OSTP director, a role that Biden is raising to the Cabinet level for the first time. Lander is the only Cabinet nominee who has yet to be confirmed.

A striking contrast: The controversy over Lander’s handling of issues of race and gender arrives as the Biden administration has pushed to make advancing equity in the U.S. and boosting diversity in the ranks of the federal government one of its top priorities.

Lawmakers had called on Biden to appoint a woman or person of color to the OSTP director spot and other top science roles in the executive branch, given that those demographics have traditionally been underrepresented in those positions and in STEM fields more broadly.

Hundreds of female scientists in January wrote an open letter opposing Lander’s nomination, which they said showed that the “glass ceiling in American science remains intact.”

The group applauded efforts the Biden administration has taken to boost diversity in federal office, but said the Lander pick “fails to meet the moment” and “exemplifies the status quo.”

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