Physicist Arati Prabhakar likely to be Joe Biden’s science adviser


An Indian-origin physicist is likely to be appointed US President Joe Biden’s next science adviser. It is also expected that she would be nominated by the President as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), though that appointment needs the nod of the Senate and could take months.

The 1959-born Prabhakar had earlier served under two other Democrat Presidents Bill Clinton and Barak Obama in different roles.

Prabhakar’s predecessor Eric Lander had put in his papers after admitting to bullying his staff, according to an article published by the peer-reviewed academic journal Science.

The science adviser to the US President is expected to address problematic science policy issues, like what should be the American strategy to take on China, implement workable rules for protecting US-funded academic research from theft and reduce inequality in the research community.

In 1993, then US President had hand-picked Prabhakar, an applied physicist in her mid-30s, to lead the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Former President Obama selected her to lead the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

If the Senate accepts Biden’s nomination, Prabhakar will be the first woman and first person of color to be the director OSTP.

Born in India, Prabhakar was raised in Texas and earned her PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1984 and joined the federal government.

She moved to the US West Coast in 1997 and for the next 10-plus years remained there as a venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley. She was also a program manager at DARPA for seven years. In 2012, she became the second woman to lead DARPA.

Seven years later, Prabhakar founded the non-profit organization Actuate, that works with private philanthropy to conduct “solutions R&D” on different areas, ranging from sustainable energy and public health to the ethical use of technology.

The Science article said, those who have known Prabhakar over the years believe her experience in Washington, DC, and technical knowledge will help her manage the twin responsibilities of science adviser to the President and director of OSTP.

The former director of OSTP, John Holdren, who held the post for eight years was quoted in the article saying, he found Prabhakar to be very smart, very principled and with excellent leadership qualities.  Holdren added that Prabhakar would make an excellent OSTP director and science adviser to the President.

Washington, DC, lobbyist Bart Gordon said Prabhakar’s reputation as a team player is an asset as well.

The main job of the science adviser is to help carry out the US President’s agenda for science. In a letter dated January 15, 2021, Biden had described his agenda for science.

The letter described a five-point plan, in which Biden asked Lander to apply lessons from the pandemic to improve public health, enlist research to combat climate change, ensure that the country remains a global leader in emerging high-tech fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science, reduce inequality within the research community, and turn federally funded basic research into well-paying jobs and new products, the article said.

William Bonvillian, a former Senate science staffer and federal relations director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that Prabhakar’s technology background will be an asset, according to the article. He added that she understands the “role of technology in the defense sector and how to manage competition with China, and she’s worked with the private sector on high-tech startups.”

According to the Science article, Prabhakar’s intimate knowledge of DARPA should help the Biden administration further stand up the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and the new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Both ARPA-H and the NSF technology directorate are expected to mimic DARPA’s risk-taking culture.