Dr. Eric Lander is a pioneer in genomics. What role will he play in the new administration?
- Dr. Lander is a mathematician and geneticist who's best known for his leading role in the Human Genome Project.
- Biden nominated Dr. Lander to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy and also serve as a cabinet-level science adviser, marking the first time the position has been part of the presidential cabinet.
- In an open letter, Biden said it's essential for the U.S. to "refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years."
President-elect Joe Biden has appointed Dr. Eric Lander, a pioneer in human genome sequencing, as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and presidential science adviser within his cabinet. It's the first time the adviser position has been elevated to cabinet level.
"This is the most exciting announcement I've gotten to make," Biden said on Friday. "This is a team that is going to help restore your faith in America's place in the frontier of science and discovery."
The move signals a departure from the Trump administration's posture toward science. President Trump went 18 months without a science adviser before nominating meteorologist Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier to the position.
To some scientists, elevating the adviser role is long overdue.
"This guarantees a seat at the table when the most important, consequential decisions are made," wrote Roger Pielke Jr. and Neal Lane in an article published by Nature. "It will also signify the importance of the role to federal agencies, to Congress and to the public."
In his announcement, Biden promised that "science will always be at the forefront" of his administration.
"Their trusted guidance will be essential as we come together to end this pandemic, bring our economy back and pursue new breakthroughs to improve the quality of life of all Americans," he said. "Their insights will help America chart a brighter future, and I am grateful they answered the call to serve."
Who is Dr. Eric Lander?
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Lander started his academic career as a mathematician, often arriving at high school an hour early to do math. He won multiple awards in mathematics in his teens, including the Mathematical Olympiad in 1974.
Finding mathematics "too monastic" to pursue as a career, he began teaching managerial economics at Harvard Business School. Then, at the encouragement of his brother, a neurobiologist, Dr. Lander became interested in studying neurobiology and microbiology. This pushed him to his main lifelong pursuit: unraveling the mysteries of the human genome.
Dr. Lander spent more than a decade as a leader within the Human Genome Project, which provided the world a complete map of all human genes in 2003. In 2004, he founded the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic nonprofit research center that partners with M.I.T. and Harvard University.
Broad's mission is to "fulfill the promise of genomics by creating comprehensive tools for biology and medicine, making them broadly available to the world and applying them to the understanding of human biology and the diagnosis, treatment, and cure of human diseases." The institute aims to diminish diseases by better understanding cellular mechanisms, rather than simply treating symptoms.
Despite some minor controversies and patent disputes, Dr. Lander remains a monumental figure in American science, and also previously served as co-chairman of former President Barack Obama's science advisory council.
What will Dr. Lander do in the Biden administration?
If confirmed by the Senate, it's not exactly clear what Dr. Lander will do in his role as cabinet science adviser and head of the OSTP. But his primary focus likely won't be COVID-19, considering Biden has already established a task force dedicated to shaping policy and recommendations related to the pandemic.
But Biden revealed some of his expectation in an open letter that posed five questions for the Office of Science and Technology Policy to explore:
- What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?
- How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful 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?
- How can the United States 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?
- How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?
- How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?
The president-elect wrote that it's essential to "refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years," concluding:
"I believe that the answers to these questions will be instrumental in helping our nation embark on a new path in the years ahead—a path of dignity and respect, of prosperity and security, of progress and common purpose. They are big questions, to be sure, but not as big as America's capacity to address them. I look forward to receiving your recommendations—and to working with you, your team, and the broader scientific community to turn them into solutions that ease everyday burdens for the American people, spark new jobs and opportunities, and restore American leadership on the world stage."
Recent American presidents have all faced a crisis of legitimacy in a trend that threatens the health of our democracy.
The election of 2020 concluded the way Donald Trump's ascent to power began – with claims over legitimacy. In fact, the last five American presidents have been labeled "illegitimate" by their opponents, demonstrating a growing and dangerous trend that threatens bedrock principles of our democracy.
Bill Clinton's 1992 victory came as a result of a three-way race between him, George H.W. Bush, and the third-party candidate, Ross Perot. Garnering 43 percent of the popular vote, Clinton's support in the country seemed low, especially in light of the fact that Republicans blamed Ross Perot for siphoning off votes that their candidate could have received. As a result, Republican leaders at the time like Bob Dole proclaimed that Clinton did not have a mandate to enact his legislative agenda, hinting at his lack of true legitimacy.
This kind of sentiment led to opposition to what was perceived as Clinton's liberal agenda—allowing gay people in the military, raising taxes, and attempting to fix the healthcare system. The Republican opposition coalesced in the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and culminated in the impeachment hearings of Clinton's second term.
U.S. presidential candidates Bill Clinton (L), Ross Perot (C) and President George Bush (R) shake hands with the panelists at the conclusion of their final debate on 19 October 1992.
Credit: J. DAVID AKE/AFP via Getty Images
The 2000 election brought issues of legitimacy to the contest between Clinton's successor George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush received fewer votes in the national count and won as a result of a Supreme Court decision after a wait of several weeks. The infamous Bush v. Gore decision stopped a recount of Florida votes, giving the state to Bush by just a few hundred votes. A later analysis revealed that a full statewide recount could have netted Gore the victory. As such, a perception of illegitimacy followed Bush (at least until 9/11).
Who was calling for Bush's impeachment at the time for getting the U.S. involved in the Iraq War under false pretenses (lack of WMDs)? None other than Donald Trump, who revealed how he thought Clinton's impeachment was a total overreach compared to the fact that Bush got off scot-free for pulling America into a war it didn't need to fight.
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate and vice president Al Gore march to the Florida State Capitol to rally against the Florida legislature. 2000.
Credit: TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images
Trump, of course, is also the one who for years questioned the right of the next president, Barack Obama, to have such a position. Trump was the most high-profile "birther," pushing the unfounded conspiracy that Obama wasn't a real American and was, in fact, born in Kenya.
Who else spread such theories? It's worth noting that Hillary Clinton supporters were known to circulate chain emails with similar Kenya-oriented claims about Obama's origins.
Credit: Scott Applewhite - Pool/Getty Images
In his turn at the helm, Donald Trump's 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton was plagued strongly by the notion that he received help from foreign powers and didn't win fair and square. The Mueller investigation into his potential collusion with Russia found much support for this notion but didn't go as far as to charge the President. Still, harkening to the clear-cut conclusions of various investigative and spy agencies, Democrats generally saw a major asterisk around Trump's election, with Hillary Clinton and Rep. John Lewis flat-out calling him an "illegitimate" president.
The nearly two decades of political behavior that saw an escalation of legitimacy attacks against the country's most powerful elected leader bring us to 2020, with another crisis in the making, courtesy of Trump. With no evidence to back it up, the President has been claiming that the election has been stolen from him in favor of Joe Biden. While his arguments haven't found much support among the courts, Trump continues to make the claim, both to continue the fight and to weaken his opponent even if Biden does end up with the Presidency.
This combination of pictures from October 22, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump and now President-elect Joe Biden during the final presidential debate.
Credit: JIM WATSON and Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
Where does this leave us, with each subsequent election creating a deep polarization and disappointing half the country to the point where they simply don't believe the other side and feel cheated? Nowhere good. Professor of Journalism Andrés Martinez described the situation aptly in 2017, in a way that resonates even louder today when we face a continuation of this sad trend:
"It's desirable, and quintessentially American, to strenuously oppose policies and ideas we disagree with," wrote Martinez in Washington Post. "But the haste of recent years to delegitimize opponents, and to call them un-American, is itself un-American. It leaves us with a bankrupt, even illegitimate, politics, devoid of shared narratives, aspirations, values and, increasingly, facts."
Martinez's prescience that facts will fall soundly at the expense of political ambitions is exactly where we find ourselves. The once-collegial chambers of government rife with unbreakable gridlock and loud accusations of misdeeds by opponents that your side doesn't even need to prove any more. A country where half the people feel the leader is illegitimate yet again but with much more anxiety and anger than ever before. A country tearing itself apart.
Partisan division has reached its peak, shows an alarming new study that identifies three crucial components.
- American political polarization has reached alarming heights, shows a new study.
- Democrats and Republicans hate the other side more than they love their own party.
- The polarization grows worse despite the fact that differences between the sides are not so dramatic.
To say that the current election is stressful and divisive is beyond an understatement. The United States is strained at the seams, ready to explode no matter who wins the presidency. A new study shows just how bad it's become, with anger at the opposing party now outstripping the love a supporter might have for their own party. To put it in other words: People hate those on the opposite side of the political spectrum more than they care for their own.
Is this a recipe for disaster? The study describes the current political attitudes in the country as "political sectarianism," linking it to religious fervor. The research also shows that, for many, political identity has become their primary identity.
The study's lead author Eli Finkel, professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, described the dangers of the situation:
"The current state of political sectarianism produces prejudice, discrimination and cognitive distortion, undermining the ability of government to serve its core functions of representing the people and solving the nation's problems," said Finkel. "Along the way, it makes people increasingly willing to support candidates who undermine democracy and to favor violence in support of their political goals."
Finkel's conclusions are based on a survey of dozens of published researched studies, going back to the 1970s. The research drew on the expertise of co-authors from six disciplines: political science, psychology, economics, sociology, management as well as computational social science.
The authors identified three specific behavioral reasons that have led to political sectarianism:
1. "Othering" – seeing the other side as different.
2. "Aversion" – seeing the other side as unlikable.
3. "Moralization" – seeing the other side as immoral.
The scientists found that while people have kept their positive and warm feelings towards their own partisans, the predominant sentiment towards the other party has turned to outright hatred.
The study's co-author James Druckman, political science professor at Northwestern, thinks that not only have things become much worse in the past decade, "there is no sign we've hit bottom."
"As much as the parties differ from one another, partisans perceive even greater differences, believing, for example, that the other party is ideologically extreme, engaged and hostile," explained Druckman. "Correcting these types of misperceptions could partially vitiate sectarianism."
If you've been following the state of the electioneering in the U.S., such a conclusion is no surprise. It has become commonplace for partisans to pour vitriol on those they disagree with, slinging unfounded accusations and personal slurs, unfriending them on social media, yelling at them in the streets. Is widespread violence not far behind?
A President Donald Trump and a former Vice President Joe Biden supporter talk before the Joe Biden Campaign Rally at the National World War I Museum and Memorial on March 7, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Credit: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
The authors identified specific causes for the growing political sectarianism:
- "Identity alignment," which has separated political affiliation based on a "mega identity" that stems from racial, religious, educational and geographic differences.
- The rise of partisan media, with the viewers politically split based on whether they follow conservative outlets like Fox News, Breitbart or OAN News versus the liberal-minded CNN or MSNBC.
- "Elite ideological polarization" where both parties cater to the fringe elements who are more ideologically extreme than the center; politicians on both sides have been moving either farther right or farther left.
How do we stop the bitterness and anger from spreading, further endangering our democracy and the very survival of the United States? Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers encourage dialogue with the other side, along with working to correct misconceptions people have of those on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
"If the differences between Democrats and Republicans really were as extreme as Americans believe, that could help to explain the contempt," Finkel noted. "But these differences exist more in people's heads than in reality. There's a whole lot of common ground, but Americans struggle to see it."
The researchers also suggest other measures like adjusting social media algorithms to prevent the spread of false or hyperpartisan information, incentivizing politicians to reach out to a wider group of Americans, instituting campaign finance reforms, and preventing partisan gerrymandering.
If you're wondering how the U.S. compares to other countries, research from Brown University released in January 2020 found that the polarization in the U.S. has increased much more from the late 1970s than in the eight other countries the scientists studied—the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden.
Check out the new study "Political sectarianism in America" published in the journal Science.