Biden's top science adviser bullied and demeaned subordinates, according to White House investigation – POLITICO

White House
Fourteen current and former Office of Science and Technology Policy staffers who worked under Eric Lander described a toxic work environment.
Eric Lander has been one of the nation’s leading scientists for decades. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
By Alex Thompson

Link Copied
President Joe Biden’s top science adviser, Eric Lander, bullied and demeaned his subordinates and violated the White House’s workplace policy, an internal White House investigation recently concluded, according to interviews and an audio recording obtained by POLITICO.
The two-month investigation found “credible evidence” that Lander — a Cabinet member and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy who the White House touts as a key player in the pandemic response — was “bullying” toward his then-general counsel, Rachel Wallace, according to a recorded January briefing on the investigation’s findings.
Christian Peele, the White House’s deputy director of management and administration for personnel, said that the investigation also concluded that there was “credible evidence of disrespectful interactions with staff by Dr. Lander and OSTP leadership,” according to the roughly 20-minute briefing, which included a representative of the White House Counsel’s office.
There was also “credible evidence” that Lander had spoken “harshly and disrespectfully to colleagues in front of other colleagues,” Peele said, according to the recording. “The investigation found credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander, where he spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way in front of other staff,” Peele said in the recording.
In an office of roughly 140 people, 14 current and former OSTP staffers who worked under Lander this past year shared similar descriptions of a toxic work environment where they say Lander frequently bullied, cut off and dismissed subordinates. Nine of those current and former OSTP staffers said Lander yelled and sometimes made people feel humiliated in front of their peers. Most were granted anonymity because they feared retaliation from Lander.
The behavior is at odds with Biden’s Day-1 warning to his political appointees that anyone who disrespected their colleagues would be fired “On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts.”
The investigation found credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander, where he spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way in front of other staff.
Christian Peele
Lander, who is scheduled to appear before the House’s Health Subcommittee on biomedical research Tuesday, did not answer phone calls Friday and declined through his office to be interviewed.
Soon after his top aides became aware of the extent of POLITICO’s investigation, Lander sent an email late Friday to all OSTP staff apologizing for his behavior.
“I am deeply sorry for my conduct. I especially want to apologize to those of you who I treated poorly or were present at the time,” he wrote, POLITICO first reported. “It’s my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It’s clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility. I have spoken to colleagues within OSTP in a disrespectful or demeaning way.”
Biden picked Lander, a leading scientist who first came to prominence for his work mapping the human genome, to head OSTP in part to show his administration would entrust scientists and medical experts as they work to combat the coronavirus. Last January, Biden wrote a public open letter to Lander urging him to “refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years,” comparing the task to a forward-looking 1944 report published by FDR’s science adviser.
White House
By Alex Thompson
A White House spokesperson wrote in a statement to POLITICO that “a full and thorough investigation was conducted” and “White House leadership met with Dr. Lander to discuss the seriousness of the matter and the President’s expectation that all staff interactions be conducted with respect.” Peele did not respond to requests for comment.
An OSTP spokesperson said in a statement: “The investigation found credible evidence of violations of the EOP’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy, and corrective action was taken consistent with those findings.”
Both spokespeople declined to attach their names to the statements. The same OSTP spokesperson said: “We are going to let Eric’s apology to our team speak for itself.”
Wallace, a career civil servant who has worked across the executive branch since the Clinton administration, including at the OSTP during both the Obama and Trump administrations, had registered a complaint to Peele last September against “Lander and other OSTP leadership,” according to the recording.
Wallace told POLITICO that Lander “retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency. Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.”
In addition to his behavior toward subordinates, Wallace, who is now deputy counsel but retained her title as chief operating officer at OSTP, accused Lander of retaliating against her by demoting her. The White House investigation did not conclude her reassignment was “procedurally improper,” but that she had been excluded from “meetings, conversations and assignments, in violation of the safe and respectful workplace policy,” according to the briefing.
Wallace initially declined to comment for this story but changed her mind after reading Lander’s note to staff on Friday. “Lander’s apology did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” she said.
“He did so much more than speak to staff in a ‘disrespectful or demeaning way.’” She added: “Lander’s apology was not only disingenuous. It compounded the deep hurt and damage he has caused by ignoring these other acts of aggression, harassment and retaliation.”
After the investigation ended in December, the White House’s personnel and Counsel’s offices concluded that Lander’s offenses were “very, very serious and are outside the expectations of all staff within the [Executive Office of the President],” according to the recording of Peele. They also concluded he had violated the White House’s “Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy” which defines bullying as “repeated behavior that a reasonable individual would find disrespectful, intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive.” The OSTP spokesperson noted that the “investigation did not find credible evidence of gender-based discrimination.”
Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.
Rachel Wallace
The investigator reviewed documents and conducted seven interviews, including with Lander, according to the recording.
As discipline, the White House required Lander to hold more collaborative meetings with subordinates, such as “brown bag sessions,” Peele said in the recorded briefing. It also mandated more trainings for all staff on the workplace policy. Peele said in the briefing there would be a check-in at the 30 to 45 day mark to see if the problematic behavior has ceased.
Eight current and former staffers said Lander should have faced tougher consequences such as mandated training for himself specifically or a suspension. Some said he should be fired, given the president’s stated zero-tolerance policy.
While swearing in political appointees on Inauguration Day, Biden pledged: “If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts.” Some OSTP staffers now scoff at the president’s promise as empty political rhetoric while others say they still believe Biden would take some sort of action if he knew the extent of the problem.
“[Lander] has a bit of Jekyll and Hyde personality. If he’s in a meeting with external people, he’s positive and ebullient, even. It’s behind closed doors that he changes,” said one OSTP staffer. “There are a lot of brilliant people in this country. I completely reject the notion that his brilliance is so singular and critical to the nation that his behavior is excusable.”
“Mr. President, please protect the dignity and well-being of our staff by standing by your zero-tolerance policy,” said a second OSTP staffer, who said they believed Lander should be fired.
Three current and former OSTP staffers said in interviews that he has laughed or taunted subordinates in front of other colleagues or asked questions that are obviously not in the person’s area of expertise until they admit they don’t know the answer. Six current and former OSTP staffers said that while he bullies men and women, he appears to take delight in trying to embarrass female colleagues in front of others.
There are a lot of brilliant people in this country. I completely reject the notion that his brilliance is so singular and critical to the nation that his behavior is excusable.
First OSTP staffer
“The Joe Biden I voted for would never knowingly empower an aggressor like Lander who openly targets women by publicly humiliating, infantilizing and intimidating them into submission,” said the second OSTP staffer.
“But Lander seems to know he’s protected. The most terrifying part about him is the open and brazen way he conducts his abuse. After repeatedly insulting and humiliating me in front of colleagues, Lander acknowledged his inability to control himself, telling me ‘I hate that I do it,’” the staffer said.
“Everyone is afraid of him,” said a third OSTP staffer. “Lander yells — screams. He’ll ask the same thing over and over but getting louder and louder each time,” said the staffer, who has witnessed his behavior.
Lander has been one of the nation’s leading scientists for decades. After winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1987 at age 30, he did foundational work on the international Human Genome Project and CRISPR-based genome editing. Lander has long been known as a brash, polarizing figure. “Why Eric Lander morphed from science god to punching bag,” a Stat News headline put it in 2016. During the so-called genome wars in the late ’90s and early 2000s, his critiques of rivals earned him the moniker of “Eric Slander” among some.
The Joe Biden I voted for would never knowingly empower an aggressor like Lander who openly targets women by publicly humiliating, infantilizing and intimidating them into submission.
Second OSTP staffer
He apologized in his confirmation hearing last spring for “understating” the role of two women scientists in a 2016 essay on the discovery of CRISPR gene-editing technology. “I made a mistake. And when I make a mistake, I owned it and tried to do better,” he said.
That history, along with some concerns about two past fundraising meetings that included the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, delayed his confirmation last spring. Of Biden’s initial 22 Cabinet nominees, Lander was the last to be confirmed.
He is a close confidante of the president. He served on the board of the Biden Cancer Initiative, the charitable organization the president launched after serving in the Obama administration. He became the first OSTP director in history to be granted Cabinet rank and is heading up the president’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, a personal priority for Biden after the death of his son, Beau in 2015.
Health Care
By Sarah Owermohle
Lander also has a long-standing relationship with deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed, Biden’s most influential policy adviser. Reed previously served as president of the Broad Foundation, which includes MIT’s Broad Institute, a biomedical research organization where Lander served as founding director and president. He is currently on unpaid leave from the institute while serving in the administration.
After the White House’s investigation concluded, Lander appeared with Biden on Wednesday for the launch of the administration’s initiative to help decrease cancer deaths. “The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, led by senior scientist and adviser, Dr. Eric Lander — sitting on the end there — will chart the path for the Cancer Moonshot for 2022 and beyond,” Biden said. The White House declined to say if Biden was aware of the investigation’s findings before the event.
Some staffers say that the consequences of Lander’s abusive behavior extend to the OSTP’s mission itself. Beyond the Cancer Moonshot, Lander has played a leading role in the coronavirus response. Asked by the New York Times’ Ezra Klein in January whether the Biden administration was prepared to quickly produce variant-specific boosters, chief of staff Ron Klain immediately pointed to Lander.
Lander yells — screams. He’ll ask the same thing over and over but getting louder and louder each time
Third OSTP staffer
“One reason why President Biden asked Eric Lander to come here to be his science adviser was to have the kind of scientific wherewithal and knowledge,” Klain said. “Eric leads a group with our medical teams across all the agencies every week where this is exactly his focus, on making sure we are building the manufacturing capacity, scientific capacity, all the different capacities we need, to hit that 100-day standard. We aren’t there yet, but we continue to work on it every single week.”
Some current and former staffers called Lander a “brilliant scientist,” but said his treatment of colleagues undermines his ability to do his current job.
“It’s not just about intimidating staff,” said a fourth OSTP staffer. “Staff waste time thinking about how to present information to him. I worry that as work problems crop up — as they do in any workplace — that they could get worse before being resolved because people are afraid of how he will react when they’re just giving him the facts.”
Link Copied
© 2022 POLITICO LLC

source