A new policy chief brings order and stability to Biden’s science agenda

After two years of controversy and turmoil, President Biden’s federal science agenda finally may be getting back on track.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation just held the confirmation hearing for Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the nominee to fill Biden’s only empty cabinet position — director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and chief adviser for science and technology. Prabhakar will take the reins of an office that was supposed to lead the Biden administration’s effort to reinvigorate federal science policy after a fractious Donald Trump presidency and a global pandemic, but instead has been roiled by controversy. 

Extensive public and private sector experience and impeccable technical credentials position Prabhakar to bring order to the agency and salvage the president’s floundering science and technology agenda.

The nomination comes after Eric Lander, the first director of OSTP since Biden elevated the position to Cabinet level, resigned after revelations that staff faced a toxic workplace culture and mistreatment. After Lander’s resignation, Deputy Director Alondra Nelson became the temporary director of OSTP and former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins was called out of retirement to act as the president’s science adviser — separating two roles that historically were united. This left many in the scientific community wondering what would happen to the administration’s science agenda and proposed elevation of OSTP. What’s more, despite Nelson’s efforts to improve and reshape the culture of the embattled agency, OSTP remained tumultuous, with a cavalcade of leaks and complaints from staffers.

Even in favorable conditions, overseeing federal science and technology policy is no easy task. The tumultuous journey of the Endless Frontier Act, now a part of the CHIPS and Science bill that is poised to provide a historic boost to the federal research and development system, is one recent example of the challenge of wrangling and coordinating the sometimes conflicting goals of the nation’s research institutions — even when there is widespread bipartisan support for increasing federal funding.

To make matters more difficult, the OSTP director’s role in formulating federal science and technology policy is largely advisory. Important budgetary decisions about science and technology, for example, are not OSTP’s to make alone; they are the end result of a complex process that involves the White House in negotiation with various congressional committees, the Office of Management and Budget, and the research agencies themselves. OSTP is nevertheless a vital resource for the president and wields considerable influence in the world of science and technology.

Yet, plagued by scandals and low morale, this administration’s OSTP desperately needs rejuvenation, making Prabhakar a solid pick. In some respects, with a background in physics, Prabhakar represents a return to “normal.” Although Lander and Collins are both life scientists — Nelson is a social scientist whose research focuses on the life sciences — most OSTP directors and presidential science advisers have been physicists. But in other respects, Prabhakar breaks the traditional mold. 

Notably, she will be the first woman, first immigrant, and first person of color confirmed to head the office. Additionally, her training and experience are more in technology and applied research domains than in “basic” or “pure” science, where many past OSTP directors and science advisers got their starts. (It should be noted, however, that Vannevar Bush — the nation’s first presidential science adviser, who oversaw some of the most important research projects in history during World War II — also was an engineer with extensive academic and private sector experience.)

Besides her private sector and nonprofit experience supporting technology and solutions-focused R&D, Prabhakar was the first woman to lead the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and was director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Department’s storied innovation hub.

This “solutions-driven” approach to R&D is essential to Prabhakar’s understanding of science and technology. In an interview with the American Institute of Physics, she reflected “that academic research life and the outlook of science weren’t for me. You know, science’s verbs are ‘know’ and ‘understand.’ Those are not my verbs. Yes, let’s know and understand, but I want to do engineering’s verbs, which are ‘solve’ and ‘create.’”

In many ways, this approach is well-suited to the role for which she has been chosen. OSTP will be key to addressing any number of complex practical challenges, from COVID-19 to competition with China, from the president’s “cancer moonshot” to ARPA-Health — a new federal program, modeled on DARPA, which aims to speed up biomedical innovation. But a bias toward applied research and technological solutions is not an unalloyed good.

An OSTP director must deftly manage the complex relationships between a diversity of research communities and constituents in both technology and science. For example, maintaining U.S. competitiveness against China and other foreign adversaries requires supporting the full panoply of science and technology domains —  which includes “basic science” aimed primarily at “knowing”  and “understanding” — no less than “applied” research and “development,” focused on “solving” and “creating.”

We should celebrate Prabhakar’s nomination after the Biden administration’s rocky efforts to reinvigorate federal science and technology policy. As they consider Prabhakar’s confirmation, senators do not need to spend time asking if she is qualified or up to the task of running OSTP. But they should ask whether Prabhakar — with her focus on solutions-directed and technology-focused research — will be an advocate for the diverse realms of science and technology, thus ensuring the long-term competitiveness of America’s pluralistic research enterprise.

M. Anthony Mills is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Ian R. Banks is a research associate for science policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @banksianr.