Throughout his storied career, Eric Lander has led science projects in just about every setting there is: academia at MIT and Harvard Medical School, independent nonprofit research institutions like the Whitehead and the Broad institutes, startups, think tanks, international consortia, and the federal government. But President Biden’s former science adviser and longtime leader of the Broad never found a space totally free of the constraints of doing science in America.
Grants, university and government bureaucracy, market forces — they all limit in some way how researchers might approach a particular problem. Which is why last summer he created Science for America, a nonprofit organization that brings researchers and technologists together to get outside their own labs and their own heads to think big about tackling some of the most pressing problems threatening humanity.
Science for America, or SfA, launched quietly last summer, with a mission to go after existential issues such as climate change, cancer, pandemic preparedness, and reimagining how research gets done in this country.
“I think it cuts to the heart of what scientists want to do, which is to go after big problems, but they often don’t always get a chance to do that in traditional industrial or academic or government settings,” Lander told STAT, in one of his first interviews since resigning from the White House in February last year following complaints of workplace bullying.
“In our own labs, we get to work on a particular type of problem. In groups like this, we can expand the focus to take on much broader questions.”
SfA is being funded by an alliance of big-name philanthropic organizations and individuals, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Emerson Collective (founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs), Gates Ventures, and Schmidt Futures. Together, they have committed $30 million over two years. That money goes toward getting leading thinkers in science and technology to devote not insignificant portions of their limited time to meet regularly and put their brains together on specific problems, producing potential solutions that they then share with the wider public.
The first of these is about nuclear fusion — a process of merging lighter atoms with heavier ones, releasing massive amounts of carbon-emission-free energy. Fusion has been long overlooked by industry because of major scientific and engineering challenges that have throttled its potential to play a bigger role in weaning the planet off fossil fuels. (Current methods often involve massive arrays of high-intensity lasers.)
But recent developments, including an ignition breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory earlier this week, have started to generate renewed interest in the technology. On Friday, SfA published a 40-page technical white paper detailing methods for testing how fusion might be operationalized and scaled up to something that could be a commercially viable clean energy alternative.
”We looked closely at fusion and decided there were important areas receiving very little attention,” Lander said. “That’s the model for Science for America in general. It’s not designed to be a standard think tank. It’s designed to be scientists and technologists coming together and asking ‘where might there be game-changing solutions that aren’t happening and how do we make them happen?’”
Another item on SfA’s agenda (which looks, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot like the parts of President Biden’s science agenda Lander had been leading) is retooling how drugs are developed for cancer patients. In recent years, the arrival of powerful gene editing tools like CRISPR, and sophisticated new screening tests that can detect signs of cancer from a drop of blood, are opening up vast new possibilities for treating many types of cancer.
But outdated medical infrastructure is making clinical trials to test those possibilities increasingly cumbersome and expensive to conduct, even as those trials continue to perpetuate long-standing health care disparities.
“In cancer, we have an amazing ecosystem exploding with ideas. But we still have bottlenecks in being able to do clinical trials to test all those ideas,” Lander said. Scientists with SfA are asking what it would take to create a standing platform that would enable smaller, faster clinical trials for many therapies, to get reliable answers more rapidly and cheaply.
“No one party in the ecosystem is ideally suited to do that,” he said. “So we’ve been looking at how one might create something that draws on the strengths of cancer-care organizations, drug developers, and diagnostics companies.”
It’s a notable pivot from the focus of President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which he charged Lander — the White House’s first-ever Cabinet-level science adviser — with reigniting in an East Room address in February last year. (It’s the same room where former President Bill Clinton heralded the work of Lander and others in completing the first draft of the human genome in 2001.) While Cancer Moonshot 2.0 set an ambitious goal of slashing the cancer death rate by 50% within 25 years, it was geared more toward expanding cancer screening and prevention, improving patient experiences, and addressing racial disparities in cancer outcomes. It did not include an emphasis on making clinical trials better or easier to conduct.
Lander didn’t get to see that effort through, resigning from his presidential adviser position and his role leading the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy just days after the moonshot announcement, after a White House investigation that found he had violated workplace policies became public in a report by Politico. In an email to OSTP staff, Lander apologized for speaking to colleagues in a “disrespectful or demeaning way.”
In February, Lander returned to the Broad, resuming his position as a core institute member at the biomedical research powerhouse and lab leader, as well as his tenured faculty positions at MIT and Harvard.