It has been 1 month since Alondra Nelson became acting head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) following the 7 February resignation of Eric Lander, who admitted to “disrespectful and demeaning” treatment of employees at the low-profile policy shop. Nelson, a sociologist who has written extensively about the impact of new medical technologies on marginalized groups, says she’s had to divide her time between managing OSTP’s role as a liaison with the U.S. research community and convener of federal science officials and boosting morale in the office.
“[My] top priority was to make sure that OSTP … is the kind of supportive and trusting workplace that allows them to do their work,” Nelson says about the 140-member staff, more than a dozen of whom had complained about what a White House investigation concluded was “credible evidence” of a toxic work environment under Lander.
Yesterday, in her first interview since being promoted from deputy director for science and society, the 53-year-old Nelson spoke with ScienceInsider about a wide range of issues, including the recently enacted 2022 federal spending bill, President Joe Biden’s ambitious science agenda, and the division of labor between her and Francis Collins, the recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who is now serving as the president’s science adviser. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What have you been doing to correct the toxic work environment at OSTP?
A: We are turning a corner here, there’s lots of change that needs to happen. When I started in this role, I made three commitments to the staff. The top priority was to make sure that OSTP provides the workplace that the staff deserves and is the kind of supportive and trusting workplace that allows them to do their work. Among many other things, OSTP is a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] community and a STEM workplace, and we need to be an exemplar of that for the country. So that really has been my top priority as I go into my fourth week in this role. We’ve also been doing a lot of listening engagement, with hard questions and hard answers. And I believe that OSTP is on its way to being an exemplary, supportive, respectful workplace.
Q: You served for more than a year as OSTP’s deputy director for science and society, a new job title that reflects the importance of that interaction for the Biden administration. What were you able to accomplish?
A: The science and society portfolio also includes scientific integrity, part of the research security portfolio, as well as some work on accountability in tech. But it certainly reflects my deep commitment to equity issues. Later this year, we hope to put out a white paper that proposes what we think is a national strategy for advancing equity around STEM issues. In doing so, we have really tried to engage communities, with more listening sessions and more ways for the public to weigh in. And as we move toward having some real recommendations, we are very interested in [getting feedback] from all sectors.
Q: This month Science ran a special section examining the factors contributing to the persistent underrepresentation of Black people in U.S. physics. As a scholar of the relationship between race, science, and society, how do you explain the hostile environment that Black people have faced over many decades?
A: In our listening sessions, we’ve observed that there’s a great passion for science and technology among many segments of society. But as your reporting noted, there are also fundamental barriers to their participation. And I think it’s been the case that for too long, we have thought that we could have the same institutions, the same kind of cultural norms, and expect a different outcome. In other words, we had the idea that we could aspire to different outcomes without changing anything at all. Changing that means that we need to think in different ways about how we do science and technology education. For example, we’ve had a kind of weeding-out culture focused on pushing people out of science. I mean, when I was an undergraduate at UC [the University of California,] San Diego, there was almost a contest [among students and faculty] to see how many people weren’t going to pass organic chemistry, which was a prerequisite for getting on the premed track. Going forward, we know that pretty much any job will be a STEM job in some capacity. So for this country to prosper we really need to have a philosophy about STEM that’s not about scarcity, but that’s about abundance.
Q: Some people think that the only way to really get academic departments to change their behavior is to make it painful for them if they don’t, in other words, to have the government withhold funding to those institutions that haven’t shown the ability to increase diversity in science and engineering. What’s the right balance between the carrot and the stick?
A: I do think there has been, over the last few years, an awakening and recognition that the status quo is not working and won’t work. So, the question is, what levers do we have to foster the kind of transformative change we want in the STEM ecosystem? Certainly, some of those levers are funding. We want to look to our colleagues at NIH and the National Science Foundation about using something like the broadening participation criteria [in reviewing grant proposals] to really reward change. But this is not punishing. It’s how do we reward and amplify the institutions and the PIs [principal investigators] that are doing that really well?
Q: Many Chinese American scientists say the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, begun under former President Donald Trump, has engaged in racial profiling and cast doubt on their loyalty to the United States. What do you think the Biden administration needs to do to restore their trust?
A: At OSTP, we’ve tried to be a good partner and engage in close communications with Asian American, Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander stakeholders, and the scientific communities. We’ve also tried to make clear as we begin to implement the research security guidance under national security presidential memo 33 that xenophobia doesn’t have a place in science and technology. We hope to create very clear standards for disclosure for the agencies and for scientists that, you know, don’t rest on stereotypes or preconceived notions, but on the actual information that people have [about a particular situation]. But I think there also needs to be a real honest conversation about the damage that has been done to Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists over the course of the last few years.
Q: Do you have direct access to the president? If so, how often have you met with him?
A: I’ve not met with the president in the last month. But my appointment is as the deputy assistant to the president. So I am able to confer with the president, as he thinks is needed.
Q: Francis Collins is now serving as science adviser and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Those are duties previously assigned to the OSTP director. How are you and he divvying up the work?
A: Francis has four buckets of responsibility. The first is as the president’s science adviser. The second is helping to lead the search for the next NIH director. The third is serving, along with Frances Arnold and Maria Zuber, as co-chair of PCAST. And then he’s also supporting Danielle Carnival, who’s the White House Cancer Moonshot coordinator, on that initiative. He and I, you won’t be surprised to hear, meet fairly regularly. We were in touch this morning, as a matter of fact. But he has several discrete tasks that take up quite a bit of his time.
Q: What is your relationship with PCAST?
A: I am going to brief PCAST when they meet later this month on the work of OSTP.
Q: Scientists had hoped this would be a banner year for federal spending on science. But despite the president’s request for double-digit increases at many agencies and billions more for research in his social welfare blueprint, the final appropriations bill fell far short of those levels. What happened, and what’s the lesson for scientists?
A: I’ll answer that in two ways. If you look at the president’s recent State of the Union address, there’s still a big vision for science and a lot of commitments and plans to move forward. So I think the science community should be encouraged that this remains top of mind and a top priority for the president. While we all certainly had hoped for more investments, there were some major achievements. And the headline is that we’ve established ARPA-H [the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health]. It is a new way of doing health research. And it comes at a really important time for the type of social and scientific challenges that we’re facing, including in our health care system.