President-elect Joseph R. Biden will have no choice but to rely on his new heads of science and technology in the Executive Branch as he begins his term facing down two dire crises: the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. So far he has embraced this reality, selecting medical experts and strategic environmental regulators as his closest advisors, and developing and campaigning on robust plans to tackle both crises.
Biden’s COVID-19 action plan has been developed with the guidance of experts in the field of infectious disease. His administration has vowed to “listen to science” and “ensure public health decisions are informed by public health professionals.”
The cabinet forms the core of the president’s advisors, though there are other key federal officials who have significant influence over policy and practices. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, wields a lot of power even in normal times, much less in a pandemic. For now, though, we’ve focused on cabinet members as the highest ranking and closest aides to the president. Here’s who’s slated to take the reins in 2021.
Eric Lander | Head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
The White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) advises the president on the impact of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. The OSTP also shapes the administration’s priorities in science and technology by coordinating policies across federal agencies and developing new initiatives.
Biden announced that Eric Lander, a molecular biologist and mathematician, is his selection for Director of the OSTP. While the position carries senior advisor status and has required Senate confirmation since the office’s creation in 1976, Biden has gone one step further and elevated the position to Cabinet-level.
A career scientist and renowned geneticist, Lander was a former co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under President Barack Obama for eight years. He was known for his ability to break down complex scientific issues while presenting PCAST reports to the president and vice president.
In 2001, Lander co-led the completion of the first draft of the international Human Genome Project. He founded the Broad Institute in 2004 and currently serves as its president. The institute is co-operated by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and conducts research that applies genomics to the treatment of human disease.
Tom Vilsack | Secretary of Agriculture
The Department of Agriculture oversees all operations of the federal government related to food, agriculture and natural resources. Traditionally, the department focuses on the needs of American farmers, but its most well-known services include food stamps (SNAP) and food safety recalls. Since the department does oversee farming regulations, its operations provide an opportunity for climate action under the Biden administration.
The president-elect has nominated Tom Vilsack for the position, the former secretary of agriculture under the Obama-Biden administration. He became familiarized with agriculture as Iowa’s governor from 1999 to 2007 before moving on to the federal executive branch.
Since then, Vilsack has worked as the CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), a dairy lobbying group. In February of last year, he was approved to monitor Purdue Pharma’s marketing operations as part of the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Vilsack’s job is to ensure that the maker of OxyContin does not continue the aggressive marketing campaign that critics say exaggerated the benefits of the opioid painkiller and downplayed the risk of addiction.
As secretary under Obama, Vilsack identified the opioid crisis in rural communities as an issue that required inter-agency collaboration to address and pushed for greater attention and funds to be paid to the crisis from the federal government.
Vilsack has been criticized for his ties to corporate farming, including his current role as head of the USDEC as well as his support of big agribusinesses like Monsanto and DuPont as governor of Iowa. Environmentalists are concerned that Vilsack will maintain the status quo and fail to make large changes, as was observed during his tenure under the Obama administration.
Gina Raimondo | Secretary of Commerce
The Department of Commerce collaborates with businesses, universities, communities and workers to facilitate job creation, sustainable development and economic growth. The secretary’s priorities typically include negotiating international trade deals, setting tariffs and promoting US exports overseas.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US Patent and Trademark Office, National Technical Information Service and National Telecommunications and Information Administration are all housed here.
The fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lies within this department makes it a potentially important part of the Biden plan for climate action. There’s also the possibility for sustainable infrastructure projects.
Biden has nominated Gina Raimondo for commerce secretary, who is the current governor of Rhode Island and has been an aggressive supporter of renewable energy. During her tenure as governor, Raimondo has advocated for offshore wind infrastructure and supported the strategy in her home state. Federal offshore wind projects will require approval from NOAA.
After founding the first venture capital firm in Rhode Island, Point Judith Capital, Raimondo began her career in public service when she was elected to serve as General Treasurer of the state in 2010. She was then elected governor in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. Her use of business incentives to prompt development has sparked criticism, but has also made her popular with the business community in Rhode Island and nationwide.
Jennifer Granholm | Secretary of Energy
The Department of Energy (DOE) manages the country’s nuclear infrastructure, oversees energy policy and funds research in the field of energy infrastructure. Most of the department’s budget is devoted to developing and maintaining nuclear technologies, including nuclear weapons. It also oversees the 17 national laboratories that develop publicly-funded technology for renewable and nuclear energy production.
The DOE will be a key part of Biden’s climate action plan because the department possesses the bureaucratic reach to implement renewable resources nationwide.
For the role of secretary, Biden has nominated Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan. She is a vocal advocate for zero-emissions transportation and the development of strong alternate energy technologies. Granholm, however, does not have a background in nuclear energy and technology, so if confirmed she will likely rely on a deputy for the expertise in the area that dominates her department’s budget.
Granholm served two terms as Michigan governor from 2003 to 2011. Before that, she was the state’s attorney general from 1999 until her election to the governorship. She has been described as a champion of the auto industry in Michigan; she won support for electric transportation in the midst of the industry’s downturn during the Great Recession. Her connections to the auto industry will be key for the nationalization of electric vehicles under Biden’s climate plan.
Michael Regan | Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protects people from environmental health risks, protects the environment from people, funds and conducts environmental research, and creates national environmental policy. It is also responsible for the enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, among other national regulations.
While the agency is not technically a cabinet department, the administrator of the EPA is given a seat in the president’s Cabinet.
Biden’s EPA will likely be responsible for reconstructing the layers of environmental regulations stripped back by the Trump administration. During his campaign, Biden promised to put the U.S. on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050. Experienced regulator Michael Regan has been nominated to lead this effort as administrator; his role will be central to the Biden administration’s climate agenda.
Regan is the current secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, where he has been working towards carbon neutrality at the state level. He was a longtime air quality expert under the Clinton and Bush administrations of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Regan then worked for the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund before returning to his home state in 2017.
Regan is well-known for this emphasis on science in his current work. His deference to science will be key for rebuilding trust in the agency, as most scientific basis for policy was left by the wayside under President Donald Trump’s EPA.
Xavier Becerra | Secretary of Health and Human Services
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) aims to enhance and protect the health and well-being of the American people, and provides publicly-funded, essential human services.
It provides grants for health research and provides the infrastructure for the national health insurance marketplace in addition to housing several agencies key to providing healthcare services and innovation in the medical sciences: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and National Institutes of Health also fall under the HHS.
The department and its current secretary, Alex Azar, have come into the spotlight during the pandemic due to their various failures to properly oversee the vaccine approval and allocation process. The incoming secretary will be central to the Biden administration’s plan to manage the COVID-19 crisis.
Xavier Becerra, the current attorney general of California, has been nominated for the task.
A former 12-term Congressman, Becerra served on the Ways And Means Committee, which deals with government budgets. While in office, he worked to successfully pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Most recently, Becerra led a coalition of 17 states in legal defense of the ACA in his current role as attorney general.
His nomination came as a surprise to many, including health professionals—although the American Medical Association issued a statement in support for his confirmation—as Becerra is a lawyer by trade.
Becerra has previously expressed support for abortion rights and universal healthcare, two sticking points that may delay his confirmation by the Senate. If he is confirmed, he faces the daunting task of rallying the department to contain and repair the damage done to the country by COVID-19.
Deb Haaland | Secretary of the Interior
The Department of the Interior manages public lands, upholds Federal trust obligations to Native American and Native Alaskan populations, and is responsible for the protection of endangered species, wildlife preservation and historic preservation. That includes overseeing 500 million acres of public land, 700 million acres of subsurface materials and 1.7 billion acres of coastline.
The president-elect has tapped Deb Haaland, a Congresswoman from New Mexico, as his nominee for the secretary position. She became one of the first two Native American women in Congress by her election to the House of Representatives in 2018 and would be the first Native American ever to hold a cabinet position. She’s an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and served as the chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico from 2014 until her election to Congress.
If confirmed, Haaland’s main objective will be protecting natural resources and public land, whose damage most often results in harm to already marginalized communities. According to The Guardian, a particular focus will be given to restoring protections for two national monuments in southern Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which are both sacred to Native Americans who reside in that region. Protections for the sites were stripped by the Trump administration.
As a key part of Biden’s climate action plan, Haaland will also look to mitigate the leasing of public land to oil and gas interests that skyrocketed under Trump.
Pete Buttigieg | Secretary of Transportation
The Department of Transportation is responsible for the planning and coordination of federal transportation projects, as well as setting and enforcing safety protocols and regulations for all major modes of transportation, including fuel economy standards.
Biden has nominated Pete Buttigieg, the former Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for the role of secretary.
Buttigieg boasts a thin resume in transportation policy and planning. Before his tenure as mayor of the second-largest city in Indiana from 2011 to 2019, Buttigieg worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company and became a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2009. During his first term as mayor, he took a leave of absence in 2014 and completed a seven-month tour in Afghanistan. If confirmed, he would be the first openly gay Cabinet member.
Though he has little real experience at the federal level, Buttigieg did debut an ambitious infrastructure plan during his presidential campaign and will likely play a part in the administration-wide push for climate action via the development of strategic transportation infrastructure and technology to reduce emissions from motor vehicles.