Eric Lander and Maria Zuber selected for science positions in Biden administration
Lander: Honored to have the chance to serve at a ‘consequential moment for science and technology’
U.S. President Joe Biden selected Broad Institute Director Eric Lander and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber for top science positions in his administration.
Lander has been named both Presidential Science Advisor — a position Biden intends to elevate to Cabinet member for the first time in history — and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which requires Senate confirmation. Zuber has been named co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with Caltech chemical engineer and 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner, Frances Arnold.
Lander will take a leave of absence from MIT. Todd Golub is the new director of the Broad Institute, where he served previously as chief scientific officer. Meanwhile, Zuber will continue to serve as the Institute’s vice president for research.
Lander has an extensive background in the sciences. After earning a B.A. in math from Princeton University in 1978 and a doctorate in math from Oxford University in 1981 through the Rhodes Scholarship, he taught courses on managerial economics, bargaining, and decision analysis at Harvard Business School.
Lander started learning about molecular biology and genetics in 1983, after his younger brother suggested that he might be interested in how biological systems process information. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed as a member of the Whitehead Institute and as a tenured professor in the department of biology at MIT in 1990. He was one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project from 1990 to 2003, and founded the Broad Institute in 2004.
Lander is not new to the U.S. government, having served under President Barack Obama as co-chair of PCAST, informing federal policy on science and technology from 2009 to 2017.
Lander was interviewed in MIT News, where he said that he is “deeply honored to have been asked to serve” during this “consequential moment with respect to science and technology.” He said in a Broad press release that the U.S. is at its most important tipping point for science “since World War II.”
Lander is especially well-known among undergraduate students for teaching 7.012 (Introduction to Biology).
Jake Yasonik ’24, a first year who took 7.012 with Lander in Fall 2020, said in an interview with The Tech that in class, Lander “always pointed out where the big research questions were and how to get involved, and so I got to see his forward-thinking, inclusive approach first-hand. I'm excited to have him leading the country's scientific initiatives.”
Yasonik also commented on Lander’s ability as a science communicator: “not only does he know the science, but he created the science, and he uniquely knows how to tell its story to the government and the public,” a skill that amidst the growing mistrust of science in the former administration will prove invaluable.
Zuber holds a B.A. in astronomy and geology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Sc.M. and Ph.D. in geophysics from Brown University. She was the first woman to lead a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spacecraft mission, serving as principal investigator of the agency’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission — an initiative mapping the moon’s gravitational field to answer fundamental questions about the moon’s evolution and internal composition — in 2008.
Zuber has held leadership roles associated with scientific experiments or instrumentation on nine NASA missions since 1990. She has also served on the national Science Board since 2012, and more recently served as NSB chair from 2016 to 2019.
She is familiar with the realm of policy as she oversees more than a dozen MIT interdisciplinary research centers, including the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the Haystack Observatory. She is also responsible for MIT’s research integrity and compliance, and plays a central role in research relationships with the federal government.
Zuber echoed Lander’s points in MIT News, stating that any solution must have the essential element of “rebuilding trust in science” and that she’s “thrilled to have the opportunity to drive positive change” whilst working with President Biden.
Arnav Patel ’21, a student who has worked with Zuber and her office through the Climate Action Advisory Committee as a representative of MIT Divest, said in an interview with The Tech, “It’s good that another MIT voice will be helping bring science and fact-based policy back to the government.”
He added that her appointment “means the work and actions that MIT take are going to be a lot more scrutinized and highlighted given the connections to the new presidential administration.” Patel hopes Zuber uses “her position to help drive more aggressive pro-climate policies here at MIT and there in D.C. than currently exist in both places.”