White House: Top scientist resigns over treatment of staff

Feb 6, 2022, 3:22 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2022, 9:49 pm
FILE - Dr. Eric Lander, listens as President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event at The Queen th...

FILE - Dr. Eric Lander, listens as President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event at The Queen theater, Jan. 16, 2021, in Wilmington, Del. Lander has resigned after the White House confirmed that an internal investigation found credible evidence that he mistreated his staff.. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s top science adviser Eric Lander resigned Monday, hours after the White House confirmed that an internal investigation found credible evidence that he mistreated his staff, marking the first Cabinet-level departure of the Biden administration.

An internal review last year, prompted by a workplace complaint, found evidence that Lander, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and science adviser to Biden, bullied staffers and treated them disrespectfully. The White House rebuked Lander over his interactions with his staff, but initially signaled Monday that he would be allowed to remain on the job, despite Biden’s Inauguration Day assertion that he expected “honesty and decency” from all who worked for his administration and would fire anyone who shows disrespect to others “on the spot.”

But later Monday evening, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had accepted Lander’s resignation with “gratitude for his work at OTSP on the pandemic, the Cancer Moonshot, climate change, and other key priorities.”

Lander, in his resignation letter, said, “I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them.”

“I believe it is not possible to continue effectively in my role, and the work of this office is far too important to be hindered,” he added.

The White House said Biden did not request Lander’s resignation.

Earlier Monday, Psaki said senior administration officials had met with Lander about his actions and management of the office, but indicated he would be allowed to stay in the job, saying the administration was following a “process” to handle workplace complaints.

“Following the conclusion of the thorough investigation into these actions, senior White House officials conveyed directly to Dr. Lander that his behavior was inappropriate, and the corrective actions that were needed, which the White House will monitor for compliance moving forward,” she said.

Psaki added, “The president has been crystal clear with all of us about his high expectations of how he and his staff should be creating a respectful work environment.”

The White House said Lander and OSTP would be required to take certain corrective actions as part of the review. It also said the review did not find “credible evidence” of gender-based discrimination and the reassignment of the staffer who filed the original complaint was “deemed appropriate.”

Lander on Friday issued an apology to staffers in his office, acknowledging “I have spoken to colleagues within OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning way.”

“I am deeply sorry for my conduct,” he added. “I especially want to apologize to those of you who I treated poorly, or were present at the time.”

The White House review was completed weeks ago, but it was confirmed — and Lander apologized — only after reporting by Politico.

Biden’s “Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy” was instituted when he took office and was meant to serve as a contrast from the often-demeaning way former President Donald Trump and his aides treated one another and political foes.

Lander’s conduct and the White House’s initial decision to stand by him sparked some consternation inside the White House and among Biden allies and created an unnecessary distraction from Biden’s agenda.

By late Monday, Lander came to believe he was in an untenable position and resigned effective no later than Feb. 18, “in order to permit an orderly transfer.”

There are five deputy directors — four women and one man — at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kei Koizumi is the deputy director for policy. Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco is the deputy for climate science. Sally Benson is the deputy for energy. Carrie Wolinetz is the deputy director for health and life science. Alondra Nelson is the deputy director for science and society.

The world’s largest general science society disinvited Lander from speaking at their annual meeting shortly before his resignation was announced. American Association for the Advancement of Science Chief Executive Officer Sudip Parikh said he didn’t know if that had anything to do with the resignation.

“I hope that we sent the right message about what’s important,” Parikh told The Associated Press Monday night. “The time of letting these things go is over. Not just in sciences, but in workplaces all across America.”

“This is an administration that has put a lot of their political capital into science and technology,” Parikh added. “It’s a tough role to fill. It’s very possible and very likely that that person could be a woman.”

Lander, whose position was elevated to Cabinet-rank by Biden, appeared prominently with the president last week when he relaunched his “Cancer Moonshot” program to marshal federal resources behind research and treatment for cancer diseases.

The founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Lander is a mathematician and molecular biologist. He was lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome, the so-called “book of life.”

His confirmation to his role in the Biden administration was delayed for months as senators sought more information about meetings he had with the late Jeffrey Epstein, a disgraced financier who was charged with sex trafficking before his suicide. Lander also was criticized for downplaying the contributions of two Nobel Prize-winning female scientists.

At his confirmation hearing last year, Lander apologized for a 2016 article he wrote that downplayed the work of the female scientists. At the hearing, he also called Epstein “an abhorrent individual.´´

Lander said he “understated the importance of those key advances” by biochemists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The two were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Lander’s departure on the grounds of Biden’s respectful workplace policy echoed the February 2021 resignation of then-White House deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo, who was suspended and then resigned over threatening conversations with a reporter.

___

Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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White House: Top scientist resigns over treatment of staff