President Biden and his Science Advisors
The appointments of Francis Collins as "science advisor" and Alondra Nelson to direct OSTP marks a historic shift for science advice in the White House
President Biden has appointed two people to fill the White House roles played by the departed and disgraced Eric Lander, President Biden’s first “science advisor” and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). One is Alondra Nelson, who served as an OSTP deputy under Lander, will now serve as interim director of the agency. The other is Frances Collins, who resigned as director of the National Institutes of Health in December, and will now fill the role of “assistant to the president for science and technology” — otherwise known as the president’s “science advisor.” Since 1976, when Congress created OSTP, its director has always been known as the “science advisor,” whether or not given the additional title of “assistant to the president for science and technology.” The distinction is not widely appreciated, but it is an important one for science advice and science policy in the White House. President Biden’s splitting of the position is significant both historically and for U.S. science policy.
In this post I’ll explain why the split matters. To start, let’s take a little trip back in time to understand the origins of the dual roles of OSTP director and presidential assistant, which before this week were filled by one person.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s White House created the position of “science advisor” in 1957 as a response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, and appointed George Killian, president of MIT. Eisenhower also created a new committee, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), which can be found today as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The creation of the new “science advisor” as a presidential assistant was largely a symbolic move, as earlier that same year Eisenhower remarked that he "hadn't given thought to any proposal to establish a scientist in a policy position in the White House or Cabinet.” At the time the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the notion of presidential “assistants” was still fairly new, having been created less than 20 years earlier by FDR.
Ever since Killian served as the first official “science advisor” every subsequent president has appointed a person to fill that role - all white men, and all physicists until the appointments of Lander and now Collins, both with expertise in medical research. The table below shows each science advisor through Barak Obama. Kelvin Droegemeier, a University of Oklahoma atmospheric scientist, served as President Trump’s “science advisor” as director of OSTP, but did not have the title of presidential assistant. Note that Ed David (Nixon) died in 2017, Frank Press (Carter) in 2020, George Keyworth (Reagan) in 2017 and John Gibbons (Clinton) in 2015. I was fortunate to have met and interviewed each of these former science advisors (along with Neal Lane (Clinton), Jack Marburger (GWB) and John Holdren (Obama) as part of a project at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy, an agency in the White House EOP, dates to 1976. The small office was established by Congress after President Nixon got rid of the position of science advisor. Nixon’s science advisor Ed David, explained to me that Nixon “abolished the science advisor position and the Office of Science and Technology after some of his advisors spoke out publicly against his plan for funding the super sonic transport and the anti-ballistic missile system.” Don’t like the advice? Get rid of the advisor.
Congressional legislation establishing OSTP and signed into law by President Ford was meant to ensure that science and technology had a permanent role in the White House, and that no future President could follow Nixon’s precedent. Since it’s creation, the OSTP director has always carried the informal moniker of “science advisor” whether or not they also served as a presidential assistant, or whether they actually provided advice to the president.
President Reagan’s science advisor, George Keyworth told me (above, in 2006) that his role was largely as a presidential assistant and he was not much focused on running OSTP, perhaps foreshadowing Biden’s official split of the position. Keyworth was asked by Reagan to focus narrowly on the “Star Wars” anti-ballistic missile program: “I was a single-issue science advisor, I was not OSTP director, effectively. I relinquished -- not formally -- but I basically made that low priority and I gave it to everybody else to do, because I was asked to do only one task.” Keyworth’s experiences are similar across advisors - the exact role of science advisor is determined on a case-by-case basis by each president. Some presidents have had more use for the role, others little or none at all — and the position has never been close to the centers of White House power.
Now you are caught up on why there are two high-level science policy positions in the White House, which President Biden has chosen to fill with two different people for the first time in history. It should be noted that Alondra Nelson is the first social scientist, first woman and first black person to lead OSTP (Update: Will Thomas tells me that Kerri-Ann Jones (1998) and Rosina Bierbaum (2001) also served as interim OSTP directors.). I am all in favor of her being officially appointed to the position and confirmed by the Senate. Nelson has also been designated as a “deputy assistant to the president,” which clearly signals the downgrade in the position.
Let me raise a few potential positives and a few potential negatives about the implications of the split positions.
A “science advisor” who serves as a presidential assistant but not as OSTP director will have an ability to participate more fully in White House policy discussions. One historical weakness of the dual roles is that as a Senate-confirmed appointee, the OSTP director is accountable to Congress and can be called to testify at any time. In contrast, a presidential assistant is much less accountable to Congress, with discussions with the president covered by deliberative process and executive privileges. Unburdened from OSTP, the “science advisor” will be in a position to offer candid advice and participate in inner circle discussions, should the president choose to use him in this way. If so, science advice in the White House could get a big boost.
That also means that the “science advisor” may disappear from public view. Presidential assistants are generally not public figures. The historic role of “science advisor” as a public cheerleader for science will likely shift over the the OSTP director. Of course, Anthony Fauci serves as a “assistant to the president” in the White House and has a prominent public profile. It remains to be seen how Biden will chose to use Collins.
It is worth noting that Biden’s “science advisor,” Francis Collins, is currently being investigated by Congressional Republicans associated with their exploration of COVID-19 origins. Such investigations will certainly get much more intense if Republicans with the House later this year. Having Collins as a “presidential assistant” offers a degree of protection from such Congressional inquiries. The other target of this investigation by Congressional Republicans is Fauci, who already is an “assistant to the president,” serving as President Biden’s “chief medical officer.” The White House has called Collins appointment temporary, but of course all presidential assistants are temporary. He will serve until he steps down or is replaced.
With Collins as “science advisor” and Fauci as “medical advisor,” the White House is signaling that the advice it is needing continues focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve commented many times on the lack of a high-level advisory mechanism on COVD-19 in the U.S. government. The White House says that Collins will co-chair PCAST and help to create “a new ARPA-H research and discovery agency, the building of support for a Cancer Moonshot 2.0, the search for a new head of NIH, and the broad advisory work of PCAST.” It is difficult to see Collins offering advice on topics such as space, climate change, artificial intelligence, agriculture, defense or the myriad other issues where “science advice” is crucial. Like Keyworth under Reagan, Collins will likely have a focused portfolio.
For OSTP, the split roles mean diminished visibility and more distance from the centers of power. The OSTP director has never been a major policy player and without the title of “science advisor” the agency will be of interest mostly to those focused on the federal R&D budget and science policy nerds. Neal Lane, science advisor and OSTP director under President Clinton, does not like the split roles, perhaps for this reason: “The director of OSTP has always been, and should continue to be, the president’s science adviser.” OSTP has traditionally worked closely with the Office of Management and Budget to provide a government-wide perspective on science funding, and to help coordinate interagency programs, such as in climate change. Despite the downgrade in visibility, Alondra Nelson and her staff will be able to focus much more attention on “policy for science.”
A final thought is that the White House is getting crowded with science-focused officials. It is not at all clear what the newly split positions imply for split responsibilities. There is real potential here for so-called “czar wars” over turf, proximity and power. Even so, I am optimistic that the split in positions offers an opportunity to improve expert advisory mechanisms in the White House and at the same time free up OSTP to focus more on its core science policy competencies.