Senate Confirmation Hearing for OSTP Nominee Emphasizes Diversity and Cures for Disease

On April 29, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a confirmation hearing for Eric Lander, PhD, President Biden’s nominee for Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The hearing covered a wide range of topics affecting the U.S. research enterprise, including diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and strategies to accelerate treatments for diseases that afflict millions of Americans.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Lander emphasized that one of his goals as OSTP Director would be to create the most diverse President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in history. Committed to prioritizing inclusive and equitable outcomes at OSTP, Dr. Lander pledged to make the OSTP staff “look like America” by increasing the participation of women and underrepresented people in STEM professions by 50 percent.

Members of the Senate Committee then exchanged turns asking Dr. Lander a series of questions, with several focused on how OSTP can improve the representation of women and minorities in STEM education and careers. Dr. Lander noted that the first step to increasing STEM diversity is providing women, people of color, and advocacy groups the opportunity to provide input and highlight specific solutions they might have to offer. Recognizing that efforts to increase diversity in STEM begins at a young age, Dr. Lander stressed the importance of having mentors and role models that look like the young people across America. More broadly, Dr. Lander emphasized the role of OSTP in facilitating increased diversity across different agencies by setting goals, developing best practices, and measuring agency accountability.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) pivoted the discussion to ask how President Biden’s proposal to establish a new agency, Advanced Research Projects Agency – Health (ARPA-H), will promote the development of potential cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. President Biden requested $6.5 billion for the proposed new agency in his initial budget to Congress, though details of the new agency’s operation and logistics remain undefined. Dr. Lander stated that ARPA-H is modeled off of the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to fund high risk innovation projects. He further explained that the proposed ARPA-H agency could fall within NIH’s research purview, but funding will focus on projects beyond the scope of NIH’s basic research grants. Dr. Lander described these projects as platforms that could bridge the gap between basic science and market-ready innovations.

The Senate Committee is expected to vote on whether to advance Dr. Lander’s nomination for full Senate consideration in the coming weeks. If confirmed, Dr. Lander will be the first OSTP Director to hold Cabinet-level status.