Arati Prabhakar will be the first woman and first person of color to serve as the US President’s chief science adviser. Photo credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US President Joe Biden has appointed Arati Prabhakar, an applied physicist with extensive experience in both the government and private sectors, to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and named her his next science adviser. The appointment comes four months after the controversial departure of Biden’s former science adviser, geneticist Eric Lander. It is a pivotal moment as the Biden administration seeks to advance its science, innovation and climate agenda.
Biden had tasked Lander, who resigned at the OSTP in February amid allegations of bullying and harassment, with addressing several issues including using lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen public health and encouraging the development of new climate technologies and clean energy and how to maintain US scientific leadership while ensuring that the benefits of innovation reach all US citizens. If her position is confirmed by the Senate, it will be up to Prabhakar to put the agency back on solid footing and push that agenda forward.
Prabhakar has polished her reputation in Washington DC under two presidents: first as head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) from 1993 to 1997 under Bill Clinton, and then 15 years later as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). , under Barack Obama. In the intervening years, she transitioned from industry and a privately funded research lab to a venture capital firm, US Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California, where she helped drive investments in early-stage technologies in the energy, electronics and semiconductor sectors. Under Biden, she will be the first woman and first person of color to serve as the president’s science adviser.
Scientists contacted by Nature welcomed Prabhakar’s nomination and said her experience and leadership skills would serve the administration well.
“She’s a natural leader,” says Neal Lane, a physicist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, who served as director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) while Prabhakar was at NIST, and later became Clinton’s scientific adviser.
While the position of Science Advisor does not require confirmation by the Senate, the role as head of the OSTP does—and that could take months. Since Lander’s departure, sociologist Alondra Nelson has headed the OSTP; At the same time, the geneticist Francis Collins has temporarily stepped in as a scientific advisor. Previously, Nelson was associate director for science and society at OSTP, a post to which she will now return; Collins resigned as head of the US National Institutes of Health in 2021.
One lesson from Lander’s tenure is that behavior matters, says Rebecca Barnes, a biogeochemist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and a director of 500 Women Scientists, an organization that has opposed his appointment as science advisor. And one lesson from Prabhakar’s appointment is that diversity and achievement can go hand-in-hand, Barnes says. “I think it’s important to diversify what a scientist looks like and what a scientist does,” she adds. Prabhakar’s appointment does both and could help “change the face of science.”
Like everyone else, Prabhakar has what it takes to address lingering tensions from the Lander era and help the agency move forward, says Margaret Levi, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in California. “She is a great manager who has handled very complex situations in the past.”
Prabhakar was born in New Delhi and raised in Lubbock, Texas. Prabhakar has had a remarkable career full of firsts and earned the respect of scientists in academia and industry. See the article : Science coverage of climate change could change minds – briefly. In 1984 she received her doctorate in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena – as the first woman. And less than a decade later, she became the first woman to head NIST, an agency with deep roots in engineering and physics, focused on developing scientific standards and tools.
In 2018, Prabhakar founded her own organization, Actuate, a nonprofit think tank based in Palo Alto, California that strives to develop scientific and policy solutions to global problems like climate change. After her nomination was announced, the organization released a statement that Prabhakar would step down as chief executive once the Senate confirmed her as head of OSTP.
Speaking on the scale-up of novel energy technologies and policies at a climate seminar at Caltech this month, Prabhakar demonstrated her thinking on driving transformative change. One problem with scaling new technologies is that everyone — from tech and financial companies to government regulators — operate independently, she said. To solve problems fast enough to change Earth’s climate, you have to “break out of those silos,” she said.
Levi says that breaking silos is one of Prabhakar’s talents and one that will serve her well in her next role. “She is deeply concerned with how science and technology can work to advance public policy on major societal challenges.”
Since taking office last year, Biden has laid out ambitious plans to boost innovation across the federal government and in the private sector. Some parts of his agenda are now moving forward, others – notably on energy and climate – are bogged down in a politically deadlocked US Congress. As science adviser and head of the White House’s central science agency, Prabhakar could play a key role in convening government officials and shaping science policies to facilitate progress.
One of the Biden administration’s largest science initiatives aims to foster innovation in biomedical research through the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. The agency is modeled after DARPA, with a goal to fund risky — but potentially rewarding and transformative — research. On the same subject : The impact of COVID-19 on science education. To ensure U.S. competitiveness while nations like China ramp up investment in science, the government has also created a new directorate at the NSF, an agency that has long been dedicated to funding basic research and focusing on supporting applied technology becomes.
Biden and his congressional Democrats have already secured tens of billions of dollars for clean energy and climate initiatives, including an estimated $22 billion for demonstration projects at the US Department of Energy. But many of Biden’s climate innovation efforts are tied to a spending package that has stalled with lawmakers.
Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York who works on federal science policy issues, says Prabhakar is a good choice to advance the Biden agenda, which places high value on applied science. However, he fears that if the pendulum swings too far in that direction, basic research programs could be undermined. “She’s very good,” he says, “but I’m a little worried.”
Others see opportunities. Lane says Prabhakar has a unique background that should allow her to address multiple challenges facing the United States and the Biden administration. Whether it’s bringing authorities together to tackle climate change, launching the new Health Innovation Agency, or addressing research questions raised by a changing relationship with China, Prabhakar’s role will be to help build consensus and deploy the troops in a sprawling apparatus of government, he says.
“It takes someone with the personal skills and knowledge and respect that she’s going to have when she gets into this job,” Lane says.