President Joe Biden ran on the premise that he was a science-based person and has granted his science department unprecedented access to the Oval Office. Biden has also given those in charge of science within his administration a large amount of power, what his staff has called the “unusual level of influence.”
What many people don't know is that a person outside his administration has had a significant impact on developing policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Eric Schmidt is a multi-billionaire and the previous CEO of Google. Through his Schmidt Foundation, he has been a private mover and shaker from outside the Google office for many months.
There are more than 12 officials working in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who have been associated with Eric Schmidt. Many of the people who work for Biden were former employees now employed by Schmidt. The former Google CEO has maintained his close relationship with Biden's previous science advisor, Eric Lander, and some of the presidential appointees. The Schmidt Foundation’s charity Schmidt Futures basically paid the salaries of two scientists in the office. This charity even paid for the previous chief of staff, Marc Aidinoff, who is currently one of the most seasoned employees in the office after Landers quit.
Why is this a problem?
Eric Schmidt has for some time sought to influence federal policy on science. He was in close contact with the Obama Administration. Schmidt created his foundation to “focus and mobilize these networks of talent to solve specific problems in science and society.” Additionally, his funding of positions within the White House administrations has raised several warning signs from watchdog organizations investigating conflicts of interest.
The Office of Science permitting an outside organization to pay the salaries of White House staffers produces ethical questions concerning the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Schmidt has certain financial interests that definitely overlap with OSTP's responsibilities, as per Rachel Wallace, a former general counsel for the Office of Science.
Schmidt is an active member of various board members of tech companies, including some that focus on artificial intelligence. He holds a 20-percent state stake in the hedge fund DE Shaw. He has been appointed to the Board of Rebellion Defense, a defense contractor that focuses specifically on AI defense. The investor is Abacus.AI, and recently he was appointed chairman of Sandbox AQ, a new business that brings together AI with quantum technology and will focus on solving the problems that affect society.
One of the most obscure lines resulting from Schmidt's influence is the way he was instrumental in launching and sitting as a director of Civis Analytics, a data-science firm that was pivotal in helping Democratic campaigns, including Biden's bid for the presidency in 2020. They focused on influencing voters and consumers.
The former general counsel, Rachel Wallace, lodged a formal complaint against her boss, Eric Lander. While in the White House, there was “credible evidence” that Lander bullied Wallace and flouted workplace rules of behavior. Wallace believes the bullying she endured was due to the constant ethical concerns she had about Lander’s plans and money from groups connected to Eric Schmidt. “I and others on the legal team had been noticing a large number of staff with financial connections to Schmidt Futures and were increasingly concerned about the influence this organization was able to have through these individuals,” Wallace explained. She is currently on the Government Accountability Project as a whistleblower.
The White House has responded to this controversy by stating that there has been nothing unusual in their relationship with Schmidt and they have dealt with ethical questions quickly and in a timely manner.
There's still plenty of smoke around the players, and wherever there's smoke, there’s fire!