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 undermined President Biden’s pledge to immediately fire any official who acted that way.
“The president accepted Dr. Eric Lander’s resignation letter this evening with gratitude,” 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 to his staff after an internal investigation found that he had violated an administration policy that outlines rules for respectful workplace conduct. In an email to employees at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Friday, Dr. Lander told his colleagues that he was “deeply sorry.”
The White House initially stood by Dr. Lander. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday that “our objective and the president’s objective is to prevent this behavior from ever happening again.” But pressure quickly mounted after the woman who had filed the complaint that prompted the investigation publicly said that his apology behavior was not sufficient, and that his had been widespread, abusive, and focused on women.
“Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated,” the woman, Rachel Wallace, who had served as Dr. Lander’s general counsel, said in an interview with Politico.
Dr. Lander, a molecular biologist who is best known as one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project and former head of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is the first person in his role to be elevated to the presidential cabinet. He is 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, 500 female 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 pointed out that he had in the past apologized for “understating” the contributions of two female scientists to the discovery of gene-editing technology, and had toasted James Watson, a molecular biologist who, the authors of the letter wrote, had a “ long history of racist and sexist comments.”
On Monday evening, the White House canceled congressional testimony that Dr. Lander was scheduled to deliver to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee on Tuesday, according to Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the subcommittee.
“The White House informed me that Dr. Eric Lander will not be testifying at the Health Subcommittee tomorrow,” she said in a statement. The hearing will proceed with the second panel of witnesses.”