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How Biden’s nominee for science adviser would make history

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If Arati Prabhakar is confirmed as President Biden’s top science adviser, she will break new ground in more than one way.

Prabhakar is the first woman to be nominated to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She’s also the first person of color and the first immigrant to be nominated for the post, the White House said.

“Dr. Prabhakar is a brilliant and highly-respected engineer and applied physicist and will lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy to leverage science, technology, and innovation to expand our possibilities, solve our toughest challenges, and make the impossible possible,” Biden said last week.

Eric Lander, Biden’s previous science adviser, stepped down in February after reports emerged that he had treated staffers badly, the Associated Press reported. Lander’s resignation was the first cabinet-level departure in the Biden administration.

Francis Collins, the longtime director of the National Institutes of Health, has been serving as Biden’s acting science adviser.

Prabhakar’s nomination received strong endorsements from advocates for scientific research, such as Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America.

“We believe Dr. Prabhakar will work effectively across the federal government to help ensure science, technology, and innovation can continue to drive economic growth, create good jobs, and address urgent threats to our health and well-being,” Woolley said in a statement.

“The American science enterprise and the American public will be well-served by her leadership, and we urge Congress to confirm her nomination as OSTP Director as swiftly as possible.”Prabhakar began her career as a science and technology policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Sudip Parikh, CEO of the AAAS, said in a statement that Prabhakar brings “the right combination of expertise, vision, and rapport to assume the top dual science position as the nation navigates public health challenges, climate change, emerging technologies, and other issues where science plays a critical role.”

Prabhakar’s leadership at DARPA would be especially beneficial as the Biden administration establishes a new federal research agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, dubbed ARPA-H, Parikh said. Congress authorized the creation of ARPA-H in the federal spending plan approved in March.

The White House has said the agency would focus on high-risk, high-reward research aimed at reaching breakthroughs in cancer and other diseases. It’s envisioned as an agency similar to DARPA, with a focus on medical research.

“Her previous leadership at DARPA, which led to pioneering work on RNA technology underlying COVID-19 vaccines, will be invaluable as ARPA-H applies the DARPA model to drive biomedical and health breakthroughs that will address diseases affecting a significant number of Americans,” Praikh said.

In addition, “Prabhakar’s historic appointment as the first woman and person of color to lead OSTP would bring an important voice to equity issues across the scientific enterprise,” Praikh said.

Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation and former President Clinton’s science adviser, told Nature that Prabhakar is “a natural leader.”

Prabhakar, who was born in India, was three years old when her family came to the United States. They first lived in Chicago but later moved to Texas. She graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Texas Tech University and later earned a Ph.D. in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology.

In addition to her leadership experience in federal science agencies, Prabhakar has spent 15 years in Silicon Valley, the White House noted. In 2019, she founded Actuate, a non-profit group aimed at taking a fresh approach on issues such as climate change and chronic diseases.