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Renewed Investment in STEM

Alondra Nelson and Nicholas Dirks Discuss Biden-Harris Administration Office of Science and Technology Policy Priorities

Published December 23, 2021

By Roger Torda

Renewed Investment in STEM

Alondra Nelson, at the New York Academy of Sciences’ recent Annual Meeting, told an audience of Academy Members that science, like representative government, is always a work-in-progress. “There’s an interesting parallel between scientific research and democracy in the sense that they both are never quite realized, never quite finished, never quite perfected,” said Nelson, a sociologist who serves as the inaugural Deputy Director for Science and Society in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). She recently joined Academy President Nicholas Dirks for a virtual discussion titled “Renewed Investment in STEM.”

Nelson is a Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Nelson’s earlier positions include President of the Social Science Research Council, an international research nonprofit organization, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and Columbia’s Dean of Social Science. She has an extensive record of research on issues at the intersection of science, technology, and society.

“I have always been interested in race and racism and social inequality,” she said in her conversation with Dirks. “I’m particularly interested in how new and emerging technologies impact, for good and for bad, vulnerable communities. … So that really has, I think, forged the experience that I brought into public service, this conviction that science and technology are inherently social things, and that when they enter the world, they do social things, they do political things. ”

Nelson’s PhD dissertation at New York University grew into her first book, Body and Soul, about the Black Panther Party’s health activism in the late 1960s, especially its use of newly-available genetic screening tests for sickle cell anemia. “This new technology allowed a social movement to do these tests in the park and in auditoriums,” Nelson said. “It was really a new technology, SICKLEDEX, introduced in 1968, that allowed all of these social possibilities to happen around it, and allowed what we would call today ‘patient advocacy’ around a genetic disease.”

In her second book, The Social Life of DNA, Nelson was one of the first social scientists to write about direct-to-consumer genetic testing. The approach reflected her interests in inequality, the empowerment of communities, and the way communities make use of new technologies. As she told Dirks, the book explores complex issues in genetic genealogy, including how African Americans who are descendants of slavery can “use these technologies to try to look back to the past and … complete genealogical stories about themselves and about their families.” She said these new technological and scientific points in history are opportunities to think about how science and technology can “make our lives safer, better, fairer, more just.”

Nelson suggests that an awareness of the interplay of science and community is historically necessary and especially important right now:

[T]he Biden-Harris administration [faced] … some pretty pronounced crises, all of which have something to do with science and technology. …There was this-once-in-a-century pandemic that’s still raging all around us. We’re obviously in the middle of a climate emergency. … There’s a complex set of national security threats … ransomware attacks and cyber security issues … and then issues around injustice and inequity throughout society. Health outcomes during the pandemic, educational outcomes, and sort of everything in between.

Later in the discussion, Nelson used a campaign slogan of President Biden’s to frame this critical moment: “What does it mean to do science, and science and technology policy, in a way that ‘builds back better’?”

The answer, Dr. Nelson suggests, includes the recognition that hard science alone cannot do the job:

It was amazing that we had SARS-CoV-2 decoded, the genome, in less than a month. And wow, it was like earth shattering and incredible that we had in 313 days, 314 days, a viable vaccine …  [yet] we’ve spent all of the rest of the time trying to get people to use it. … So, it was clear that social science, social issues, thinking about inequality, was going to have to be a course. And we had the … incredible, tragic disparities around race, around ethnicity, and immigration status, with regard to rates of people perishing.

Nelson pointed out that her boss, Eric Lander, is the first Director of OSTP whose work has been in the life sciences, and that this is helping focus the Office’s work on healthcare issues, including pandemic preparedness. Nelson also described the value of the administration’s proposed ARPA-H agency, designed to fund advanced research projects to improve healthcare capabilities and platforms. She said this approach can support research in maternal health, maternal mortality rates, and behavioral science.

Nelson and Lander are also tackling problems resulting from bias in artificial intelligence data sets that can lead to discrimination in housing, employment, and healthcare. They are calling on the public to submit information about biometric technologies that might support a new “AI Bill of Rights.”

Amid global challenges and crises, Nelson seems optimistic. She refers to President Biden’s belief that difficult moments can lead to “promise and possibility” rather than peril. And she said of her own goals: “I really want to challenge folks in industry, folks in academia, to think about upstream issues, and to think about equity and justice, and safety in science and technology, as a kind of ‘innovation’, and to reframe how we think about that word.”

Here is the complete discussion between Alondra Nelson and Nicholas Dirks.

Nicholas Dirks used the occasion of the Academy’s Annual Meeting to outline plans for the International Science Reserve (ISR), a collaboration with IBM and other stakeholders to mobilize scientific communities to respond to global crises. Click here for more information on the ISR.