It’s not a completely surprising decision. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is at the heart of Biden’s initial strategy, and a life sciences expert could be critical to making informed decisions about the novel coronavirus and the vaccines meant to counter it. Biden has asked Lander what the pandemic can teach the US about broader public health issues. The President-elect has also asked Lander about the potential for scientific breakthroughs to address climate change and give the US a lead over rivals like China.
The appointment, if confirmed, will nonetheless serve as a sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s anti-science policies. In addition to gutting environmental regulations, trying to prop up coal and and neglecting data, the outgoing White House hasn’t done much to champion scientific leaders. Trump only nominated Kelvin Droegemeier as his OSTP director in July 2018, nearly halfway into the presidency.
There’s no guarantee future administrations will maintain the Presidential Science Advisor at such a high level. Lander’s nomination is still historic, though, and could spur similar choices going forward. If nothing else, it makes clear that science will influence many decisions for at least the next four years.