Indian-origin physicist Arati Prabhakar is expected to be named as the scientific adviser to United States President Joe Biden this week. Biden is also expected to nominate Prabhakar as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP).
Prabhakar will succeed Eric Lander, who resigned as the Science Advisor to the President on February 7, 2022, after admitting to bullying his staff, according to an article published by peer-reviewed academic journal Science.
Prabhakar will need senate confirmation to become OSTP director, a process which could take months. However, she can immediately take the post of the President's science adviser. Her responsibilities as the science adviser include addressing problematic science policy issues, such as how best to position the US to compete with China. She will also have to implement workable rules for protecting US-funded academic research from theft, and reduce inequality in the research community.
Who Is Arati Prabhakar?
In 1993, Prabhakar was a 34-year-old applied physicist. She was selected by the then-President Bill Clinton to lead the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Two decades after being named to lead the NIST, former President Barack Obama chose Prabhakar to lead the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
When the Senate confirms Prabhakar as the director of the OSTP, she will become the first woman and first person of colour to lead OSTP. She is also set to become the first woman and first person of colour to serve as science adviser.
Prabhakar was born in India and raised in Texas. After earning her PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1984, she went to work for the federal government.
In 1997, Prabhakar moved to the West Coast of the US, where she spent more than a decade as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. The physicist spent seven years as a program manager at DARPA. In 2012, Prabhakar became the second woman to lead DARPA serving a five-year stint.
In 2019, Prabhakar founded Actuate, a non-profit organisation that works with private philanthropy to conduct activities she calls "solutions R&D" in different areas, ranging from sustainable energy and public health to the ethical use of technology.
Then, she went on to become the first woman to lead NIST.
According to people who know Prabhakar, her experience in Washington, DC, and technical knowledge will help her manage the job of science adviser to the President and director of the OSTP, the article said.
Quoting John Holdren, who led OSTP for 8 years and served as Obama's science adviser, the article said he has found Arati to be very smart, very principled, and with excellent leadership qualities. He added that 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.
What Is The Science Adviser Expected To Do?
The main job of the science adviser is to help carry out the US President's agenda for science. Biden had described his agenda for science in a letter dated January 15, 2021.
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 administratio 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.
Since this is a mid-term appointment, Prabhakar will probably not spend much time crafting new initiatives.