In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton selected a 34-year-old applied physicist named Arati Prabhakar to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Two decades later, former President Barack Obama chose her to lead the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). And starting this week, President Joe Biden is expected to appoint Prabhakar as science adviser and appoint her as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Prabhakar, 63, would succeed Eric Lander, who resigned on February 7 after admitting intimidating his staff and creating a hostile work environment during his 9 months in office. Although she needs Senate confirmation to become director of the OSTP – which could take months – Prabhakar can immediately take up the post of scientific adviser. This would give him a role in resolving several thorny science policy issues, including how best to position the United States to compete with China, implement practical rules to protect US-funded academic research from theft and reduce inequalities in the research community.
Prabhakar’s vast experience in Washington, DC, and her technical knowledge will be a huge plus as she tackles her dual jobs, say those who know her.
“I found Arati to be very intelligent, highly driven, and…with excellent leadership qualities,” says John Holdren, who led the OSTP for 8 years and served as science adviser to Obama. “She would make an excellent director of the OSTP and science advisor to the president.”
Her reputation as a team player is also an asset, adds Washington, DC lobbyist Bart Gordon, a former chairman of the House Science Committee as a Democratic representative from Tennessee. “She’s got all the experience you could ask for, and she’s such a nice person too,” says Gordon, now at K&L Gates. “I am absolutely delighted with the choice of the president.”
If – or more likely when – Prabhakar is confirmed by the Senate, she would become the first woman and first person of color to lead the OSTP and serve as a science advisor. Born in India and raised in Texas, Prabhakar earned her Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1984 and immediately went to work for the federal government. She spent 7 years as a program manager at DARPA, the Army’s technology incubator, before becoming the first woman to lead NIST.
In 1997, she moved to the West Coast, where she spent more than a decade as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. In 2012, she became the second woman to lead DARPA, serving a 5-year term during which she established a biotechnology office that pioneered work on RNA vaccines to combat the current pandemic. In 2019, she created Actuate, a nonprofit that works with private philanthropy to conduct what she calls “solutions R&D” in areas ranging from sustainable energy and public health to healthcare. ethical use of technology. After Biden was elected, some political buffs were betting on her appointment as science adviser.
The adviser’s primary job is to help carry out the president’s science agenda, which Biden outlined in a January 15, 2021 letter. His five-point plan called on Lander to apply lessons from the pandemic to improve public health. , mobilizing research to fight climate change, ensuring that the country remains a world leader in emerging high-tech fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science, reducing inequalities within the community of research and turn federally funded basic research into well-paying jobs and new products.
Congress has helped Biden achieve a few of those goals, passing legislation that creates a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF). ). But there have also been some setbacks.
Biden’s $2 trillion social and economic stimulus package, which includes major investments in sustainable energy, is all but dead as it lacks the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the deciding vote in a Senate also divided. And a massive research, manufacturing and trade bill designed to bolster the country’s ability to compete with China is moving at a snail’s pace through Congress, with no guarantee that lawmakers will ever reconcile the competing versions in the Senate and representatives room.
In implementing Biden’s to-do list, Prabhakar will not be able to rely on a prior connection to the president, unlike Lander. A mathematician turned molecular biologist, Lander had worked with Biden when the vice president ran Cancer Moonshot during the Obama administration, and he co-chaired the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Obama. Lander’s background in the life sciences was also seen as an asset as the Biden administration battled the COVID-19 pandemic.
But times have changed, and Prabakhar’s technological background will be an asset, said William Bonvillian, a former Senate science staffer and director of federal relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is a guest lecturer. “We’re in a huge fight with China over technology, and Arati is steeped in every aspect of that,” Bonvillian said. “She understands the role of technology in the defense sector and how to responsibly manage competition with China, and she has worked with the private sector on high-tech startups.”
“We are also involved in a war with Russia [over Ukraine],” he adds. “And DARPA’s mission is to make sure our fighters have access to cutting-edge technology.”
Prabhakar’s intimate knowledge of DARPA should help the Biden administration set up fledgling ARPA-H and the new NSF technology leadership, both of which should emulate DARPA’s risk-taking culture. Last year, Prabhakar authored a white paper outlining how to apply the DARPA model across government, noting that it requires a clear mission, autonomy and exceptional leadership.
As a mid-term appointment, Prabhakar is unlikely to spend much time crafting new initiatives. And if Republicans regain control of one or both houses of Congress in elections this fall, the White House Biden will likely have to rely on executive orders to implement its agenda rather than new legislation.
But that should still give Prabhakar plenty to work with.
“OSTP has influence, not power,” a longtime Washington, D.C., higher education lobbyist and insider said of the $7 million-a-year office, which relies heavily on personnel seconded from other federal agencies. “And that has as much influence as the director and her team can have. Arati is tough but friendly, and she knows how to wield that influence.