Eric Lander ‘bullied and demeaned staff at White House science office – investigation”

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

A recent White House investigation concluded that Eric Lander, President Biden’s top science advisor, bullied and demeaned his subordinates, Politico reported.

The news dropped just hours after Politico reported that Lander, the famed but often controversial geneticist who served as founding director of the Broad Institute before getting tapped to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, emailed all his staff to apologize for speaking to colleagues in a “disrespectful and demeaning way.”

“The investigation found credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander, where he spoke to them in a demeaning or abrasive way in front of other staff,” Christian Peele, the White House’s deputy director of management and administration for personnel, said in a briefing — a recording of which was obtained by Politico.

Fourteen current and former staffers of the OSTP — which has a headcount of about 140 — shared with Politico “similar descriptions of a toxic work environment where they say Lander frequently bullied, cut off and dismissed subordinates,” sometimes yelling at people and making them feel humiliated in front of peers.

While most remained anonymous, Rachel Wallace — a longtime civil servant and the OSTP’s chief operating officer, who first filed a complaint against Lander and OSTP leadership — went on the record saying that Lander “retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency. Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.”

None of the details were mentioned in Lander’s vaguely-worded apology email.

“It’s my responsibility to set a respectful tone for our community. It’s clear that I have not lived up to this responsibility,” reads an email obtained by Politico. “This is not only wrong, but also inconsistent with our Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy. It is never acceptable for me to speak that way. I am deeply sorry for my conduct. I especially want to apologize to those of you who I treated poorly or were present at the time.”

Wallace told Politico the apology “did not come close to addressing” the full extent of his offense. Other staffers argue he should be fired, or at least face a suspension, with one calling him an aggressor who “openly targets women” and another highlighting the “open and brazen way he conducts his abuse.”

“He did so much more than speak to staff in a ‘disrespectful or demeaning way,’” Wallace said, adding: “Lander’s apology was not only disingenuous. It compounded the deep hurt and damage he has caused by ignoring these other acts of aggression, harassment and retaliation.”

Biden elevated the science office to Cabinet level in an attempt to signal his government’s focus on science.

But his selection of Lander as the leader of the office and his science advisor wasn’t without friction, with critics slamming what they see as over-the-top arrogance that consumes scientific accolades at the expense of others, especially women and people of color.

During his inauguration, Biden also pledged a zero-tolerance policy on improper conduct: “If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts.”

It remains to be seen what consequences Lander, who has also been tapped to head the recently relaunched Cancer Moonshot initiative — a project close to Biden’s heart — will face.

White House leadership has met with Lander to discuss the “seriousness of the matter,” according to a spokesperson. An OSTP spokesperson said that “corrective action was taken consistent with those findings.”

Lander, who apparently got wind of the investigation and looming Politico report, referenced it in his email.

“I understand that some of you have been asked about this, and I thought it was important to write directly to you,” he wrote. “I also realize that my conduct reflects poorly on this Administration, and interferes with our work. I deeply regret that.”

He promised to “take concrete steps to promote a better workplace,” including regular forums to check in with staff and trainings to ensure they know how to report concerning conduct. In the recorded briefing, Peele talked about requiring Lander to hold more collaborative meetings such as “brown bag sessions,” and mentioned there would be a check-in with staff after 30 and 45 days.