Biden chooses first black woman as scientific advisor

Biden chooses first black woman as scientific advisor

White House Scientific Advisor (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

White House Scientific Advisor (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

President Joe Biden has named the former head of two federal science and engineering agencies to be his scientific adviser, who, if confirmed by the Senate, will be the first woman, person of color and immigrant to hold that position in the Cabinet.

Biden has appointed engineer and physicist Arati Prabhakar, who during the Obama administration ran the James Bond-like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which created the Internet and stealth aircraft, to the role of scientific adviser, who also includes managing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prabhakar helped start the work at DARPA that eventually led to the type of RNA vaccine used to develop injections for COVID-19. In the 1990s, starting at age 34, she was the first woman and youngest person to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Prabhakar would take over after Biden’s initial scientific adviser, Eric Lander, resigned when a White House investigation found he bullied employees amid complaints about how he treated co-workers. It was the first resignation of the Biden administration. Lander had previously been criticized for downplaying women’s contributions to science. He would be replaced by Prabhakar, who was also the first woman to earn a doctorate in applied physics from Caltech, after earning a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

“She’s clearly a very smart, articulate, visionary who makes things happen,” said Trump’s science adviser Kelvin Droegenmeier, who said he didn’t know her personally but heard her talk at the National Academy of Sciences “and was frankly dazzled.”

Droegenmeier said that Prabhakar’s “first and foremost role is to restore trust and integrity in the OSTP, which I have no doubt she can do.”

In appointing her, Biden called Prabhakar “a brilliant and highly respected engineer and applied physicist” who will help use science and technology to “solve our toughest challenges and make the impossible possible.” The work includes dealing with issues of climate change, public health, defence, energy and technology.

Sudip Parikh, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general scientific society, highlighted Prabhakar’s work at DARPA as “leading to pioneering work in the RNA technology underlying COVID-19 vaccines.”

Prabhakar immigrated to Chicago and then to Texas with her family from New Delhi, India when she was 3 years old. After earning his doctorate, Prabhakar worked for DARPA, becoming the first person to run their microelectronics office. She then headed NIST, which deals with engineering standards. In between government gigs, she worked in Silicon Valley as an executive and venture capitalist, and in 2019 she founded the research NGO Actuate.

When Lander resigned earlier this year, he was temporarily replaced by former director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins and deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Alondra Nelson. Nelson and other women had been interim science and technology bureau chiefs before, but until Prabhakar none had been nominated for the permanent position confirmed by the Senate.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears

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