White House’s top S&T adviser resigns over bullying staff

Outgoing Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander at his swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Kamala Harris, as his wife Lori Lander holds a 13-page fragment of a Mishnah, a collection of material embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law, on June 2 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

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The White House’s top science and technology adviser resigned after admitting to disrespecting and demeaning his staff, in a letter submitted to President Biden on Monday night.

Director Eric Lander intends to remain with the Office of Science and Technology Policy until Feb. 18 to ensure an orderly transfer to his successor, having been found to have bullied subordinates and violated workplace policy during an internal investigation first reported by Politico.

“I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to reach our shared goals — including at times challenging and criticizing,” Lander wrote in his resignation letter. “But it is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women.”

Whether Lander’s resignation will derail the Biden administration’s ambitious science and technology (S&T) agenda — including the crafting of an Artificial Intelligence Bill of Rights and creation of a National AI Research Resource — remains to be seen, but the outgoing director was aware of the possibility.

OSTP did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

In addition to apologizing, Lander in his letter highlighted recent OSTP work, including:

  • pandemic preparedness and accelerating biomedical progress treating cancer and other diseases;
  • solving the climate crisis with innovative clean-energy technologies using fusion and electro-fuels;
  • enhancing basic research, supporting commercialization, protecting national security and attracting S&T talent;
  • creating a Science and Society Division promoting equity in STEM fields and education, as well as an AI Bill of Rights; and
  • guaranteeing a sustainable STEM ecosystem.

The director pulled out of a House Health Subcommittee hearing, where he was scheduled to testify on the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and biomedical research Tuesday.

Lander’s resignation came hours after Press Secretary Jen Psaki struggled to explain why he was wasn’t fired for violating the White House’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy, which was instituted by Biden to contrast his administration with former President Trump’s. Biden went so far as to tell new hires on a video conference call just after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, that he’d fire anyone he heard disrespect a colleague “on the spot — no ifs, ands or buts.”

The White House’s initial plan was to monitor Lander’s compliance with corrective actions for building a respectful work environment that he’d outlined in a message to staff.

“Dr. Lander’s record was thoroughly examined as a part of his confirmation, and he received bipartisan support — including final confirmation with a voice vote,” Psaki told reporters, during Monday’s press briefing. “But again, once we were made aware of the complaint, we launched a thorough investigation, and compliance with the recommendations is, will be, required in this regard.”

A complaint from Rachel Wallace, Lander’s former general counsel, in 2021 led to the White House’s two-month investigation involving accounts from multiple women who had negative interactions with him. She continues to hold her demotion to deputy counsel was gender-based discrimination, though the investigation found no such evidence.

A total of 14 current and former OSTP staffers, in an office of about 140, described a toxic work environment under Lander in which he took particular delight in embarrassing women, during interviews obtained by Politico.

“I will take this lesson forward,” Lander added in his resignation letter. “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.”

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AI bill of rights, artificial intelligence (AI), Eric Lander, Jen Psaki, Joe Biden, Office of Science and Technology Policy, resignation
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