Biden infuses science team with heavy climate focus

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Science won’t just inform federal policymaking in the Biden administration. It’ll also have a prominent seat in the White House.

President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday that Eric Lander would come to the White House as his science adviser. Lander has been a leader of the Human Genome Project and a founding director of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Biden also plans to elevate Lander’s assigned role — officially known as the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy — to a Cabinet-level job for the first time in history. The change means it will require Senate confirmation.

In related news, Biden appointed Frances Arnold, director of the Rosen Bioengineering Center at the California Institute of Technology, as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Biden said Arnold is one of the world’s leading experts in protein engineering as well as a “lifelong champion of renewable energy solutions who has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.”

Biden said climate would be one of the key areas where he wants science to drive policy. Biden said he wants Lander and the rest of the administration’s top researchers to use research to help determine how “science [can] help us confront the climate crisis with American jobs and ingenuity.”

“This is the team that asks us to imagine every home in America being powered by renewable energy within the next 10 years,” Biden said Saturday at an event in Wilmington, Del., announcing the appointments.

At the event, Lander said his mission would be to combine job creation with carbon emissions reductions.

“He’s asked us to rise to this moment, to draw lessons from the pandemic, to seek bold new climate solutions, to propel technologies that will create new industries and new jobs,” he said.

Arnold said she would draw on more than four decades of background in the solar and renewable energy industry to craft the administration’s response to the climate and fiscal crisis.

“When we put science back to work for the benefit of all people — revitalizing our economy, fueling our climate response, broadening our perspective as we rebuild around greater equity and opportunity — we are making a society worth passing on to our children and our grandchildren,” she said.

Biden also appointed Alondra Nelson, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and president of the Social Science Research Council, as the deputy OSTP director. He named Maria Zuber, a geophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT, as the first woman to lead a NASA robotic planetary mission.

Zuber hails from a coal mining area outside Pittsburgh, and both of her grandfathers were miners who died of black lung. She said Biden’s science team would not only plan the nation’s recovery from the pandemic but also the response to broader job losses, particularly in places like her hometown, where coal mining jobs have been declining for decades.

“We will be there beyond the pandemic, too, helping take on the full sweep of challenges ahead, including our transition to a zero-carbon energy system, our need to create the good-paying jobs of the future and our existential fight against climate change,” she said.

The appointments are a sharp departure from President Trump’s term, as he routinely downplayed and mocked climate science as well as the research that showed the severity of the COVID-19 threat. Trump waited 19 months to appoint a science adviser and then continued to elevate fringe researchers instead of climate scientists with decades of expertise.

“After four years of the worst administration ever for our environment and the climate, President-elect Biden continues to reinvigorate the integrity of science by staffing his administration with climate leaders and experts that will rely on the data, not the wishes of corporate polluters,” Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director, said in a statement. “In doing so, Biden is making it clear he will waste no time in recommitting the United States to addressing the climate crisis — and using the whole of the government to do so.”

The outgoing head of OSTP, Kelvin Droegemeier, is an extreme-weather expert who acknowledges humanity’s role in warming the planet at an unprecedented pace, which put him in direct contrast to Trump, who denies the reality of human-caused climate change.

During his two years in the White House, Droegemeier failed to establish a climate focus to the position. But he did manage to block several climate denial efforts.

He was part of a group that stopped a White House push to conduct a hostile review of climate science. And last week, Droegemeier removed from OSTP two researchers appointed in the final months of the administration to influence the next National Climate Assessment with fringe research that would muddy the public’s understanding of global warming (Climatewire, Jan. 13).

It’s also noteworthy that Biden chose not to appoint a climate scientist for the Cabinet-level position, as some environmentalists had hoped.

What’s more, mere hours away from taking office, Biden has yet to announce his picks for the two most important climate science positions in the government: the heads of NASA and NOAA.

Some in the Biden transition had considered bringing back John Holdren, a climate scientist and President Obama’s former OSTP director, according to a source close to the transition.

However, Biden decided not to appoint a climate scientist to the role.

The source, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said the Biden administration was so focused on infusing climate into all aspects of the administration that tapping a climate scientist for science adviser — particularly if the position was to be elevated to a Cabinet level — might lead to “too many cooks in the kitchen.”