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Top White House scientist resigns, admits he 'caused hurt'

Eric Lander admitted "being disrespectful and demeaning" to his staff, behavior that President Biden has said would result in firing.
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The top science adviser to the White House, Eric Lander, resigned Monday, telling President Joe Biden in his letter of resignation that he had been "demeaning" to subordinates.

Lander, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is the first member of Biden’s Cabinet to resign.

For Lander's critics, his exit took far too long, and he shouldn't have been nominated. For the White House, Biden has been "crystal clear" about his expectations and what will ultimately become of bullies under his watch, press secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of the resignation Monday.

During his campaign, Biden vowed to make the White House a fair and respectful place to work and said he would terminate bullies under his auspices "on the spot."

Lander, who was founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was tapped by Biden for scientific advice before his inauguration. But Lander's nomination prompted warnings from some science luminaries, and he was the last of Biden's Cabinet members to be confirmed.

"The president accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening with gratitude for his work," Psaki said in a statement. "He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead."

Image: Eric Lander
Joe Biden, right, listens as Eric Lander speaks during an event at The Queen theater, on Jan. 16, 2021, in Wilmington, Del.Matt Slocum / AP file

The resignation came after Politico reported Monday morning on allegations that Lander had "bullied and demeaned his subordinates," including his onetime general counsel Rachel Wallace, who resigned and filed a complaint before the White House launched a two-month investigation.

The publication said it confirmed that the investigation, described as recently concluded, found credible evidence of the scientist's office bullying. It reported that multiple women had complained to colleagues about his behavior, which they generally described as demeaning.

As news of the forthcoming story spread Friday within the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Politico reported, Lander sent an email to staffers apologizing for his behavior.

Lander, a noted geneticist, molecular biologist and mathematician, as well as a principal researcher on the Human Genome Project, apologized again in his resignation letter.

"I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them," Lander wrote, adding that "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."

Following the news of Lander's behavior, the American Association for the Advancement of Science disinvited him from its annual meeting next week.

"Toxic behavioral issues still make their way into the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] community where they stifle participation and innovation," the organization's top leaders said in a statement Monday.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy should be "a model for a respectful and positive workplace for the scientific community — not one that further exacerbates these issues," they wrote.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., had called for Lander's resignation following Politico's report, saying in a statement, "Bullying or demeaning subordinates is never acceptable."

Before the resignation letter was tendered, Psaki was questioned at her daily briefing about why Lander was still employed.

She said the scientist had been given an opportunity to correct his behavior.

"Lander is expected to comply and he will be monitored for compliance, because having a safe workplace environment is imperative to the president," she said.

The White House was warned about Lander's behavior when he was nominated. An opinion piece in Scientific American last year credited to the group 500 Women Scientists recounted a history of alleged disrespect.

It said he wrote a history of gene editing in 2016 that overlooked some of the women who had made it happen. Those included Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2020, the pair won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their gene-editing research.

In 2018 Lander apologized after news that he had raised his glass to a noted racist went viral.

On Monday, the executive director of Compass (originally the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea), Amanda Stanley, bemoaned the saga, tweeting, "It is incredibly disappointing to think about the energy, time, and talent my colleagues at OSTP must be wasting in dealing with this. And it was all so avoidable."

Lander's resignation comes nearly a year after TJ Ducklo resigned as White House deputy press secretary after a report that he had harassed and threatened a female reporter from Politico.

CORRECTION (Feb. 8, 2022, 10:05 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the organization where Amanda Stanley is the executive director. It is Compass, not Comass.