Biden’s Top Science Adviser Resigns After Acknowledging Demeaning Behavior – The New York Times

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The adviser, Eric S. Lander, had apologized for his workplace conduct. The president had pledged to immediately fire any official who acted that way toward colleagues.

WASHINGTON — Eric S. Lander, the president’s top science adviser, resigned Monday evening after acknowledging that he had demeaned and disrespected his colleagues, behavior that prompted immediate questions about how he could keep his job given President Biden’s promise to fire any aide who disrespected others.
“The president accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening with gratitude” for his work, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement. “He knows that Dr. Lander will continue to make important contributions to the scientific community in the years ahead.”
Dr. Lander, a cabinet-level official, apologized in an email to his staff after an internal investigation found that he had violated an administration policy that outlines rules for respectful workplace conduct. In his resignation letter to the president, he again expressed regret for having been disrespectful.
“I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them,” Dr. Lander wrote in his resignation letter. “I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to reach our shared goals — including at times challenging and criticizing. But 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.”
Mr. Biden, on his first day in office, said he would immediately terminate anyone who was caught showing disrespect to another colleague.
“If you’re 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,” Mr. Biden told a group of appointees on Inauguration Day. “Everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That’s been missing in a big way for the last four years.”
Since then, the White House has faced questions on how Mr. Biden’s edict has been applied across the administration.
In February, T.J. Ducklo, a former deputy White House press secretary, resigned after he had used abusive and sexist language with a female reporter. (The resignation only came after an outcry over his initial punishment, which was suspension without pay for a week.)
The case of Dr. Lander was revealed earlier by Politico. Rachel Wallace, who served as Dr. Lander’s former general counsel, brought a complaint against him and other leaders in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“Lander’s apology did not come close to addressing the full extent of his egregious behavior,” she said in an interview with Politico, choosing to reveal her identity after she read the letter he sent to employees.
“Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated,” Ms. Wallace said.
The investigation into Ms. Wallace’s complaint found that he had engaged in “bullying” behavior toward her. Investigators also uncovered “credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander,” according to the Politico report.
An administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the process, said that the investigation did not find credible evidence of gender-based discrimination and that Ms. Wallace’s reassignment was deemed appropriate. Ms. Wallace is now deputy counsel and chief operating officer at the office.
The White House initially stood by Dr. Lander. Ms. Psaki fielded questions from reporters on the matter earlier on Monday, including several who questioned how the president could operate with a zero-tolerance policy on workplace harassment if Dr. Lander remained employed.
But pressure quickly mounted after Ms. Wallace publicly said that his apology was not sufficient, and that his behavior had been widespread, abusive and focused on women.
“Our objective and the president’s objective is to prevent this behavior from ever happening again,” Ms. Psaki said.
Ms. Psaki referred repeatedly to the administration’s “Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy across the Executive Office of the President,” which she said was completed early in Mr. Biden’s tenure.
The document, sent by Dana Remus, the White House counsel, to employees in May, states that “discrimination; harassment, including sexual harassment; bullying; and retaliation violate the respect owed to every employees in the White House, and such conduct will not be tolerated,” according to a copy obtained by The New York Times. Bullying is defined in the policy as “repeated behavior that a reasonable individual would find disrespectful, intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive.”
Ms. Psaki said Dr. Lander’s background had been extensively vetted during his Senate confirmation process, for which she noted he had received bipartisan support. It was not a smooth road. During the process, Dr. Lander was questioned by Republicans and Democrats about his past contact with Jeffrey E. Epstein, the former financier and convicted sex offender. He also apologized for “understating” the contributions of two female scientists to the discovery of gene-editing technology.
At the time, Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, gave him some advice: She said she hoped the doctor would “use this hearing as an opportunity to explain how you have learned from your past mistakes.”
On Monday, members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology requested that the White House provide them with a copy of the administration’s internal investigation report.
Dr. Lander, a mathematician by training who entered genetics, is best known as one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project and the former head of the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard. He was the first person in his role to be elevated to the presidential cabinet, and was in charge of the president’s cancer “moonshot” initiative, which aims to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50 percent over 25 years. In recent weeks, he had delivered briefings on the subject to the president and first lady, whose eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.
But by the time he was appointed to be Mr. Biden’s science adviser, he was well known within the scientific community for offending women. Last January, the organization 500 Women Scientists published an editorial in Scientific American that pleaded with Mr. Biden to consider naming someone else — preferably a woman — to the position.
“While we can celebrate the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to science, we must recognize that Lander has a reputation among some scientists for being controversial, and colleagues have criticized him for his ‘ego without end,’” the group wrote. They also pointed out that he had in the past toasted James Watson, a molecular biologist who, the authors of the letter wrote, had a “long history of racist and sexist comments.”