Engineer and CASBS Alumnus Arati Prabhakar Tabbed to Head U.S. Science Policy Office

Engineer and applied physicist Arati Prabhakar – who previously headed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology — has been nominated to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy and as such be the chief science adviser to the U.S. president.

If her nomination by President Joe Biden is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she will become the first woman, immigrant, and person of color confirmed to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP. The office is currently overseen by sociologist Alondra Nelson, serving on an acting basis since Eric Lander stepped down in February amid allegations of bullying.

Outdoor headshot of Arati Prabhakar
Arati Prabhakar (Photo: Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University)

“Dr. Prabhakar is a brilliant and highly-respected engineer and applied physicist and will lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy to leverage science, technology, and innovation to expand our possibilities, solve our toughest challenges, and make the impossible possible,”  Biden was quoted in a release from the White House. “I share Dr. Prabhakar’s belief that America has the most powerful innovation machine the world has ever seen. As the Senate considers her nomination, I am grateful that Dr. Alondra Nelson will continue to lead OSTP and Dr. Francis Collins will continue to serve as my acting Science Advisor.”

While Prabhakar comes from the STEM world, her experiences include a 2017-18 fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Her aim there was to take “a fresh look at long-standing issues — how our society creates technology and how we make wise choices about its use — for this era of global, fast-paced advances.”

In addition to being the president’s chief advisor for science and technology, Prabhakar would be co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a member of the presidential cabinet.

Prabhakar has been confirmed by the Senate before – unanimously – to lead the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Starting at age 34, she led the institute from 1993 to 1997. She served as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, from 2012 to 2017. Under her leadership, the White House noted, DARPA kick-started the development of a rapid-response mRNA vaccine platform that made possible the quick development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Between leading NIST and then DARPA, Prabhakar spent 15 years in Silicon Valley, helping bring R&D to deployment as a company executive and as a venture capitalist. In 2019, she founded Actuate, a non-profit organization bringing new actors to the table to develop solutions to the challenges of climate, health, trustworthy data and information technology, and opening access to opportunity for every person.

Prabhakar’s family immigrated from India to the United States when she was 3. She earned a degree in electrical engineering degree from Texas Tech University and was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology, where she also earned an M.S. in electrical engineering. She is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

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