The White House science office sets strategic priorities for the nation’s more than $1.4 trillion in annual health and science spending. It has also been increasingly focused on federal policy on artificial intelligence.
Eric Schmidt has long sought influence over U.S. science policy. Under Biden’s former science chief, Eric Lander, Schmidt’s foundation helped cover officials’ salaries, even as the office’s general counsel raised ethical flags.
As President Joe Biden granted his science office unprecedented access and power, one outside adviser to that office has attained what staffers describe as an unusual level of influence.
A foundation controlled by Eric Schmidt, the multi-billionaire former CEO of Google, has played an extraordinary, albeit private, role in shaping the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy over the past year.
More than a dozen officials in the 140-person White House office have been associates of Schmidt’s, including some current and former Schmidt employees, according to interviews with current and former staff members and internal emails obtained by POLITICO.
Schmidt maintained a close relationship with the president’s former science adviser, Eric Lander, and other Biden appointees. And his charity arm, Schmidt Futures, indirectly paid the salaries of two science-office employees, including, for six weeks, that of the current chief of staff, Marc Aidinoff, who is now one of the most senior officials in the office following Lander’s resignation in February. The chief innovation officer at Schmidt Futures, OSTP alum Tom Kalil, also remained on Schmidt’s payroll while working as an unpaid consultant at the science office for four months last year until he left the post following ethics complaints.
Schmidt has long sought to influence federal science policy, dating back to his close ties to the Obama administration. While his spokespeople presented his efforts to help Biden as part of Schmidt Futures’ mission to “focus and mobilize these networks of talent to solve specific problems in science and society,” his foundation’s involvement in funding positions for specific figures raised repeated red flags from internal White House watchdogs.
The science office’s efforts to arrange for Schmidt Futures to pay the salaries of Lander’s staff sparked “significant” ethical concerns, given Schmidt’s financial interests in areas overlapping with OSTP’s responsibilities, according to the science office’s then-general counsel, Rachel Wallace, in internal emails obtained by POLITICO.
Schmidt sits on the boards of a wide variety of technology companies, particularly those focused on artificial intelligence. He maintains a 20 percent stake in the hedge fund DE Shaw that boasts over $60 billion in investments and committed capital, sits on the board of the AI-focused defense contractor Rebellion Defense, is an investor in Abacus.AI and this month invested in and became chair of Sandbox AQ – a new company that is a spin-off of an internal Google software team that says it will combine “AI + Quantum tech to solve hard problems impacting society.”
He also helped launch and is on the board of Civis Analytics, a data science company that has helped Democratic campaigns, including Biden’s 2020 effort, target consumers and voters.
Over the past year, internal emails show that Wallace and other members of the science office’s legal team regularly flagged potential conflicts of interests related to Schmidt and Schmidt Futures.
Last fall, Wallace lodged a formal complaint about Lander’s treatment of her as an employee. Landler resigned Feb. 18 after POLITICO reported that the White House had found “credible evidence” that he bullied Wallace and violated workplaces standards with other staffers.
Wallace says she thinks Lander’s bullying was in response to her consistently raised ethical objections to Lander’s plans, including the office’s solicitation of funding from Schmidt-connected organizations for extra staff.
“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, who is now being represented by the Government Accountability Project as a whistleblower, told POLITICO. GAP and Wallace formally filed a whistleblower complaint in early March.
A spokesperson for Lander declined to address specific issues but said: “Throughout his tenure, Dr. Lander strictly adhered to all White House ethics policies.”
The White House said there was nothing unusual about its ties to Schmidt and that ethical issues were promptly and properly handled.