One of Joe Biden’s first moves was to elevate the position of Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to full membership of the cabinet and to appoint Eric Lander, the head of the MIT/Harvard genomics institute – The Broad – to the post.

This is a good move, as Lander, a former mathematician turned biologist, is a genuine world leader, widely respected for the quality of his contributions to genomics and his academic leadership.

At the same time Vice-President Kamala Harris has wasted no time in affirming her commitment to science. In a short and powerful speech, she mentioned that her mother was a scientist, whom she used to help by washing pipettes. Harris’s mother was Shayamala Gobalan Harris, who worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on genes related to breast cancer. Kamala Harris explained how her mother taught her the importance “of making decisions, not based on intuition or ideology, but based on evidence … of following the science, of listening to scientists.”

Already there is much rejoicing because #ScienceIsBack and under the tag #BuildBackBetter one almost believes that the tide is turning. Scientists remember that Trump did not appoint anyone into the role of science director for 18 months into his term and even then science remained sidelined.

Few of us imagined that supporting science would become so politically partisan.

When the idea of “alternative facts” emerged many of us smiled in disbelief, unaware of how powerful, attractive and ultimately dangerous policies of insane denial would become. Most of us in science, who deal with facts and reason, felt powerless as it gradually dawned on us that “you can’t reason people out of a position, they didn’t reason themselves into”.

Scientists were reduced from pioneers who managed to put humans on the moon, under Kennedy, to people desperately calling from the sidelines that the Earth is not flat – and that climate change and the corona virus are not hoaxes. As Vice President Harris said in her speech “The science behind climate change is not a hoax. The science behind the virus is not partisan. The same laws apply, the same evidence holds true, regardless of whether or not you accept it”.

Scientists are watching eagerly to see if, ironically, America is about to become great again or at least to resume its position as a respected leader in innovation and scientific thinking.

It is too early to see President Biden’s full agenda but the letter he sent to Lander is helpful. He gives no direct orders but frames his position unequivocally by asking five questions, padded out with comments;

* What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?

* How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change—propelling market-driven change, jump-starting economic growth, improving health, and growing jobs, especially in communities that have been left behind?

* How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?

*  How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?

* How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?

In the first two he’s covered the big issues: health, climate/energy, employment. The last three are interesting. There’s a strong appeal to nationalism there, but I guess it’s part of his ongoing efforts to unite his nation and be inclusive. There is implicit confidence that investing in science is the best path to prosperity but also a somewhat surprising reference to China. China is progressing too but did he need to mention them – does the USA have to be first?

The renewed positioning towards science is good news and Kamala Harris’s speech said it well “President-elect Biden and I will not only listen to science, we will invest in it so we can achieve breakthroughs — from strengthening public health to tackling climate change to jumpstarting job-creation and economic growth.”

This is what many scientists and many others wanted to see. It’s not an ideology, it’s not an intuition, it’s a fact that over the last few centuries investing in science and rational thinking has driven breakthroughs that have helped humanity across the board from health to energy, and science has created jobs, driven economic growth, and improved human well-being.

Science is back and the pandemic will end. It’s time to rebuild, not with straw, nor with sticks, but perhaps with real investment and bricks, both in the US, and in China, and hopefully in Australia too!


Merlin Crossley is DVC Academic and Student Life at UNSW


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education