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Biden picks first woman and person of color as science adviser

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has named the former head of two federal science and engineering agencies to be his science adviser, who, if confirmed by the Senate, will be the first woman, person of color and immigrant to hold this position at the Cabinet level.

Biden named engineer and physicist Arati Prabhakar, who under the Obama administration led the James Bond-style Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which proposed the internet and stealth planes, as scientific adviser, which also includes the management of the White House. Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prabhakar helped initiate work in DARPA that ultimately led to the type of RNA vaccine used to develop vaccines against COVID-19. In the 1990s, starting at the age of 34, she was the first and youngest woman to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Prabhakar would take over after Biden’s original science adviser, Eric Lander, resigned when a White House investigation found he had bullied staffers amid complaints about his treatment of colleagues. It was the first such resignation from the Biden administration. Lander had previously been criticized for downplaying women’s contribution to science. He would be replaced by Prabhakar, who was also the first woman to earn a doctorate in applied physics from Caltech, after earning master’s and bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering.

“She’s clearly very smart, articulate, a visionary who gets things done,” said Trump science adviser Kelvin Droegenmeier, who said he didn’t know her personally but heard about her at the National. Academy of Sciences “and was very frankly blown away.”

Droegenmeier said “Prabhakar’s first and most important role is to restore trust and integrity to the OSTP, which I have no doubt she can do.”

In nominating her, Biden called Prabhakar “a brilliant and highly respected engineer and applied physicist” who will help use science and technology to “solve our toughest challenges and make the impossible possible.” The work includes managing climate change, public health, defence, energy and technology issues.

Sudip Parikh, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general science society, pointed to Prabhakar’s work at DARPA as something that “led to pioneering work on RNA technology under underlying COVID-19 vaccines”.

Prabhakar immigrated to Chicago and then to Texas with her family from New Delhi, India when she was 3 years old. After earning his doctorate, Prabhakar worked for DARPA, later becoming the first person to head its microelectronics office. She then headed the NIST, which deals with engineering standards. Between government gigs, she worked in Silicon Valley as an executive and venture capitalist and in 2019 founded the nonprofit research association Actuate.

When Lander stepped down earlier this year, he was temporarily replaced by former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Alondra Nelson. Nelson and other women have previously served as interim heads of the office of science and technology, but until Prabhakar, none had been nominated for the permanent position confirmed by the Senate.


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears

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