In a short executive session today, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee advanced the nomination of Eric Lander to be the next director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). His nomination will now go to the full Senate for consideration.

The entire process took less than 15 minutes, with the committee agreeing by voice vote to advance his nomination. After the executive session, the committee held a hearing on the nomination of Col. Pamela Melroy to become deputy administrator at NASA.

“We are at a critical moment when science and innovation has never been more important to our health, to our economy, to our well-being, to our planet, and to our way of life,” said committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash of the Lander nomination. “For the first time in our country’s history, President Biden has elevated this position to a cabinet-level post, underscoring its significance and importance of the role that science will play in decision-making.

Sen. Cantwell lamented that President Biden did not nominate a woman to head OSTP, but said she has reached an understanding with Lander that working to increase diversity and inclusion in science should be his priority.

A report released earlier this year by the majority staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology flagged a startling workforce decline and a lack of progress in diversity at key Federal scientific agencies.

“Dr. Lander and I have come to a focus and understanding that the very first task that you should focus on is helping all of us add diversity of women and minorities in the science field,” Sen. Cantwell said.  “So, he and I will be working aggressively on that, we hope that we can continue to give the committee and all our colleagues almost a six-month update every six months of where we are on this process.”

Col. Melroy – a former astronaut, deputy director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and one of just three women to pilot NASA space shuttles – faced questions in her nomination hearing centered around how NASA should focus on funding STEM research, the importance of building in redundancies and resilience into project designs, and the importance of diversity at the agency.

“It is important to see role models. NASA funds STEM in every state of the country. That isn’t to say that there is not more to do. We all know it’s a very leaky pipeline,” Melroy said in response to questioning. “We have to work together; I think it’s very important that all departments and agencies work together in this area. NASA co-chairs an interagency committee called Co-STEM to address those very issues.”

“But of course, I just have to add that as a little girl, I was inspired by the Apollo program, there were no women astronauts, at that time. But I was so inspired. I went on to become a space shuttle commander, and I personally believe that NASA plays an essential role in actually executing missions like Artemis, and on to Mars to inspire that next generation,” Melroy added.

She later endorsed the continued use of the International Space Station until 2030 and said the United States needs to work with allies to develop “norms of behavior” for space travel, in response to questions about the uncontrolled re-entry of a Chinese rocket earlier this month.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.