February 24, 2022

Science Advisor Resigns After Violating Workplace-Behavior Rules

Science Advisor Resigns After Violating Workplace-Behavior Rules

By: Sydney Sheffield 

Eric Lander, the director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has resigned after an internal investigation found that he demeaned his staff in a way that violated the Biden Administration’s workplace-behavior rules. 

“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, the White House’s deputy director of management and administration for personnel, said in a recording obtained by Politico

During a White House press briefing, Jen Psaki, press secretary, said that President Biden accepted the resignation, and it would take effect no later than February 18th to allow for the transition of the office. “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 a resignation letter. The Chairwoman and ranking member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology sent a letter to the President requesting a copy of the internal investigation report to review. The letter also requests a staff brief with the committee to ensure the next steps and improve workplace behaviors. 

Out of almost 150 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. 

One of the key players in the investigation was Rachel Wallace, Lander’s then-general counsel. Wallace has served in the executive branch since the Clinton administration and was specifically stationed at OSTP during both the Obama and Trump administrations. She said 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.”

Before quitting, Lander caught wind to the extent of Politico’s impending report and sent a staff email, stating that he “will take concrete steps to promote a better workplace. We will schedule regular forums to check in with staff on how we are doing in creating and upholding a safe and respectful workplace. We will also ensure that every employee knows how to report conduct that concerns them.”

Wallace is not satisfied with his apology. “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.”

It is not clear who will take over for Lander or how this will affect President Biden’s scientific agenda.