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President Biden, Fire Eric Lander
A White House investigation found that President Biden's science advisor bullied members of his staff and created a toxic work environment
”I’m not joking when I say this. If you’re ever working with me and I hear you ever treat a colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone. I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No if, ands or buts. Everybody, everybody will be treated with decency”
President Joe Biden, January 20, 2021
UPDATE: Lander resigned during the evening of February 7.
Today, Politico reports that the White House recently completely an investigation of Dr. Eric Lander, the president’s science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The investigation “found credible evidence of violations of the EOP’s [Executive Office of the President] Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy.” Late last week Lander send a note to all OSTP staff, offering an apology for his behavior, explaining, “It's my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It's clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility.”
The allegations are stunning, among them:
“The investigation found credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander, where he spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way in front of other staff,” Christian Peele, the White House’s deputy director of management and administration for personnel;
“[C]urrent and former OSTP staffers said Lander yelled and sometimes made people feel humiliated in front of their peers. Most were granted anonymity because they feared retaliation from Lander,” Politico
“[Lander] retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency. Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated,” Rachel Wallace, current OSTP Chief Operating Officer who says she was demoted from the parallel role of chief counsel in an act of retaliation by Dr. Lander.
Despite President Biden’s day 1 pledge - no ifs, ands or buts — the White House is apparently giving Dr. Lander a free pass. Politico reports that Lander is staying on after “corrective action was taken,” which presumably includes his all-staff email of late last week. Bizarrely, among the requirements imposed by the White House in response to the investigation are “more trainings for all staff on the workplace policy.” This is odd because the allegations of abusive and bullying behavior focus on one individual.
It was last week’s email from Lander that prompted Wallace to go public:
Wallace initially declined to comment for this story but changed her mind after reading Lander’s note to staff on Friday. “Lander's apology did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” she said.
“He did so much more than speak to staff in a ‘disrespectful or demeaning way.’” She added: “Lander's apology was not only disingenuous. It compounded the deep hurt and damage he has caused by ignoring these other acts of aggression, harassment and retaliation.”
Wallace isn’t the only current OSTP staff member who finds the White House response to be insufficient. One told Politico, “I completely reject the notion that his brilliance is so singular and critical to the nation that his behavior is excusable.” Another continuing OSTP employee appealed directly to President Biden,
Mr. President, please protect the dignity and well-being of our staff by standing by your zero-tolerance policy. The Joe Biden I voted for would never knowingly empower an aggressor like Lander who openly targets women by publicly humiliating, infantilizing and intimidating them into submission.
Dr. Lander’s apparent exemption from President Biden’s no-exemption respectful workplace policy, comes soon after the White House ignored scientific integrity violations from another top OSTP official — who happens to be leading the Biden Administration’s science integrity initiatives. It is difficult to avoid the impression that rules are important, but they do not apply inside the White House.
It is also remarkable to observe the silence of the broader scientific community - so far at least. Dr. Lander’s egregious behavior in OSTP has been quietly discussed in the science policy community for many months, and is characteristic of his behavior prior to joining the Biden Administration. What ever happened to “believe women” and no tolerance of bullies (whatever their political affiliation)? I hope that leading scientific voices and institutions get on the right side of this issue, and soon.
OSTP is a small, out of sight organization. It also occupies a vital place in the nation’s science policy ecosystem. It’s staff are incredibly dedicated and hard working. They deserve much better than this. Another OSTP staffer says of Lander, “Everyone is afraid of him.” And still another says, “people are afraid of how he will react when they’re just giving him the facts.” Clearly, all-staff training is not going to detoxify this workplace.
President Biden, live up to your inauguration day pledge and fire Dr. Lander. That’s the right thing to do. It is important to clear the way for a new leader of OSTP in order for the agency to fulfill its important mission in support of the nation’s science and technology policies.