January/February 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 3

New Leadership for Science Policy from Washington; Professor Gang Chen and Trump’s Last Anti-Science Campaign; Fresh Winds for the Nation from Biden/Harris; Honorary Degrees, Confederate Statues, and Naming Buildings

Jonathan A. King, Helen Elaine Lee, Nasser Rabbat

New Leadership for Science Policy from Washington

The general health and welfare of our nation has been at increased risk as a result of the anti-science policies of the Trump administration. President Biden’s selection of Professor Eric Lander as his Science Advisor and Professor Maria Zuber as the co-chair of the President’s Council of Scientific Advisors (joined by Caltech biochemical engineer Frances Arnold) represents a necessary and welcome return to the inclusion of scientific knowledge and inquiry in national decision-making that is so badly needed.

Both of these colleagues have a deep history of engagement with publicly funded science and technology. Lander was vice-chair of President Obama’s Presidential Science Advisory Committee, and before that head of the publicly funded arm of the Human Genome Project. In addition to her work as Vice President for Research at MIT, Professor Zuber has longstanding experience as a NASA planetary mission leader.

Lander’s recent mobilization of the Broad Institute in the service of improved Covid-19 testing has put him at the center of the effort to deploy biotechnology in the service of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. His prior leadership of the Human Genome Project secured that a great number of critical human gene sequences would be in the public sector, rather than being privatized through patent monopolies gained by the competing private effort led by Celera Corporation. The continuing rapid development of vaccines and therapies for Covid-19 will depend on enhancing cooperation and collaboration, both in the private biopharma sector, and in the international arena.

The critical importance of public databases – such as the Genome Database and the Protein Structure Database – is generally unknown or unappreciated by the public. The rapidity of coronavirus vaccine development rests on the universal availability of all high-resolution data on the coronavirus proteins through the Protein Data Bank. Similarly, the immediate availability from Chinese scientists of the coronavirus RNA sequence accelerated development of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. The worldwide sharing of the emerging sequence information on coronavirus variants is crucial for responding efficiently to the pandemic.

Professor Zuber, as a former chair of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is particularly well-equipped to tackle the climate change issue that Biden/Harris have put high on their agenda. As the daughter of a Pennsylvania coal-mining family, she will bring not only scientific but also social and personal insight to policy debates.

Professor Gang Chen and Trump’s Last Anti-Science Campaign

The Trump administration has been marked by efforts to undermine the application of scientific approaches to public policy in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control, among other agencies and government offices. One form of obstruction was the effort to discredit scientific collaborations with Chinese scientists, as well as scientists of Chinese origin working in the U.S. The charges against our colleague, Professor Gang Chen, are a piece of this lingering Trump anti-science policy. We encourage you to read the letter to President Reif from our colleagues with respect to Professor Chen and the related article.

Fresh Winds for the Nation from Biden/Harris

President Biden and Vice President Harris, together with Democratic Congressional leadership, have moved quickly to put their stamp on reforming national policy. The Biden/Harris $1.9 trillion relief package to address the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis is a strong start. It includes billions for direct Covid testing, tracing, and vaccinations; extends unemployment benefit supplements to September, protects food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, and expands the child tax credit from $2000 to $3000. It will provide billions to open schools safely, and extends the evictions moratorium until March.

Nine of the 17 Executive Orders signed by the new president on Inauguration Day sought to undo some of the worst aspects of Trump’s immigration policies. These actions will release pressures on members of MIT’s support and academic staffs, on students, and on our neighbors in surrounding communities. Biden/Harris declared a 100-day moratorium on deportations, cancelled the Muslim ban, halted work on the border wall, reinstated and fortified the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, took measures to reunite families, and began to consider a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented. And they increased the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. from Trump’s punitive limit of 15,000 to 125,000.

On climate policy, Biden/Harris have re-entered the Paris Climate Agreement, will cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and have set forth an ambitious plan and infrastructure for a coordinated response to the climate crisis, including a cabinet-level position for John Kerry on climate.

The Biden/Harris foreign policy is not yet fully articulated. However, the decision to extend the New Start nuclear weapons treaty for five years is a welcome reversal from the Trump policy of abandoning nuclear weapons treaties.

Honorary Degrees, Confederate Statues, and Naming Buildings

One sound aspect of MIT Institutional culture is the absence of the annual Honorary Degree ritual. A healthy national development has been the removal of public monuments glorifying slaveowners and confederate generals. Perhaps it is time to stop naming buildings for financial donors. Certainly, computer scientists will regret being saddled with the name “Schwarzman” College of Computing, given Schwarzman’s regressive politics, questionable business practices, and campaign contributions that contradict MIT’s stated values. MIT’s much admired and richly deserved reputation as a bastion for objective science and engineering can only be sullied by permanent association with a figure who represents such deplorable political and social viewpoints and actions.