Lawmakers Urge POTUS to Nominate OSTP Director Amid Ethical Concerns

This article features Government Accountability Project’s whistleblower client, Rachel Wallace, and was originally published here.

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, urged President Biden on Monday to submit a nominee to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The request comes after committee leadership sent a bipartisan letter in recent weeks requesting the White House attempt to fill the position as soon as possible.

Since President Biden took office, OSTP has taken on several priorities, including reinvigorating government processes for scientific integrity, preparing for future pandemics, and exploring the implications of artificial intelligence on human rights. Yet, controversy surrounding the office’s leadership and recent reports of ethical violations have largely overshadowed these initiatives.

Since Eric Lander resigned in February amid allegations of bullying and a hostile work environment, Alondra Nelson has served as the acting director of OSTP. However, Senator Wicker contended that OSTP continues to experience a toxic workplace, despite Lander’s resignation, given reports from employees.

“Until this post is filled, OSTP’s leadership will be encumbered by the lingering allegations of misconduct against Dr. Lander and the senior leadership that still remains at OSTP,” Senator Wicker wrote, “If the White House cannot maintain its policies within its own walls, federal employees are unlikely to believe that policies regarding workplace behavior will protect them. It is my hope that you will promptly nominate strong and accountable leadership for OSTP.”

Former Google Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eric Schmidt has also been linked to the office, according to an extensive POLITICO report. A whistleblower identified potential conflicts of interest between Schmidt’s philanthropy, Schmidt Futures, highlighting funding for travel, fellows, and collaboration with an unpaid White House consultant. Further investigations revealed that more than a dozen White House officials were associated with Schmidt, along with some current and former Schmidt employees.

Internal email correspondence within the science office revealed members of the legal team have frequently raised the issue of potential conflicts of interest relating to Schmidt and Schmidt Futures. Rachel Wallace, who had served as general counsel at OSTP, filed a formal complaint about Lander’s treatment of her. In Wallace’s opinion, Lander’s conduct arose from the frequent ethical concerns she raised about the close relationship with Schmidt.

“I and others on the legal team had been noticing a large number of staff with financial connections to Schmidt Futures and were increasingly concerned about the influence this organization was able to have through these individuals,” Wallace stated.

Schmidt Futures has since denied any wrongdoing, pointing out that OSTP relies on external experts to guide science policy, a setup which enables the federal government to quickly bring in technical expertise. The White House asserted that Schmidt had no unusual ties to the office, and officials dealt with any ethical issues appropriately.