This is not a completely surprising decision. Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is at the heart of Biden’s initial strategy, and a life science expert could be essential in making informed decisions about the novel coronavirus and the vaccines to counter it. Biden has asked Lander what the pandemic can teach the United States about broader public health issues. The president-elect also asked the Lander about the potential for scientific breakthroughs to tackle climate change and give the United States a head start over rivals like China.
The nomination, if confirmed, will nonetheless be a stark contrast to the Trump administration anti-science policies. In addition to evisceration of environmental regulations, try prop up coal and and neglect the data, the outgoing White House has done little to defend scientific leaders. Trump didn’t appoint Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the OSTP until July 2018, almost halfway through the presidency.
There is no guarantee that future administrations will maintain the presidential scientific adviser at such a high level. Lander’s appointment is still historic, however, and could prompt similar choices in the future. At the very least, it is clear that science will influence many decisions for at least the next four years.