President Joe Biden’s nomination of Eric Lander to be his top science adviser has been delayed in part because of a Democratic senator’s concerns about meetings Lander and his colleagues had with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier who was charged with sex trafficking in 2019 before his apparent suicide.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, has wanted more clarity on the extent of Lander’s associations with Epstein, according to an official familiar with the situation.
Asked Wednesday about her concerns about Lander and Epstein, Cantwell said: "We’re having a hearing on him next week and we’ll see what happens with that.”
Lander has met with Cantwell, according to the White House. Her office declined to comment further on what happened in the meeting.
Lander is the director of the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard and Biden’s pick to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which the president for the first time has made a Cabinet-level post. He’s the only Cabinet nominee who has yet to be confirmed (Biden has not yet nominated an Office of Management and Budget director after he had to withdraw his first pick). His confirmation hearing is set for April 29, more than two months after the hearings for Biden’s other Cabinet nominees wrapped up.
Lander and several other professors met with Epstein in 2012 in the office of Martin Nowak, a Harvard mathematical biologist, four years after Epstein pleaded guilty to solicitation of prostitution involving an underage girl. The meeting was reported by BuzzFeed News as part of a 2019 investigation that revealed Epstein’s lavish donations to scientists at M.I.T. and Harvard. There are also several photographs of the meeting showing Epstein with scientists, including two of Epstein and Lander. The pictures had previously been on JeffreyEpstein.org, a website Epstein ran for one of his foundations.
Lander described the meeting in a 2019 email to BuzzFeed as “an informal sandwich lunch at [Nowak’s] institute to talk science with various people,” adding that he didn’t know Epstein would be there.
“I later learned about his more sordid history,” Lander told BuzzFeed. “I’ve had no relationship with Epstein.”
The White House said Wednesday that Lander met Epstein twice, as Lander wrote in a 2019 email to colleagues obtained by M.I.T.’s student newspaper. “Dr. Lander briefly met Epstein in Spring 2012, at two events with multiple Harvard donors, faculty and others, and he correctly decided to have nothing to do with Epstein,” a White House spokesperson said.
“As has been previously reported, neither Dr. Lander nor the Broad [Institute] solicited nor received any funding support from Epstein or his foundations, nor did he or the Broad have any relationship with Epstein,” the White House spokesperson added. The White House did not respond to follow-up questions about the second meeting.
Lander served for eight years as a co-chair of the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama administration, a part-time role in which he briefed President Barack Obama and Biden on scientific issues. He previously gained prominence from his work on the Human Genome Project.
Lander is not mentioned in the 63-page investigative report that the law firm Goodwin Procter put together on M.I.T.’s behalf looking into the university’s interactions with Epstein. Nor is he mentioned in Harvard’s report on its own connections with Epstein.
Epstein claimed on one of his websites that his foundation had sponsored “many prominent scientists,” including Lander. A spokesperson for Lander told The New York Times in 2019 that the boast wasn’t true. (Two other scientists whom Epstein claimed to have sponsored also said Epstein had never supported their work.)
“Mr. Epstein appears to have made up lots of things, and this seems to be among them,” Lander’s spokesperson, Lee McGuire, told The Times.