White House Head of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. Alondra Nelson Talks to the Chicago Defender

A scholar of science, technology, medicine, and social inequality, Alondra Nelson is the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent research center in Princeton, New Jersey. She currently leads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and is a Deputy Assistant to President Joe Biden.

Established the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 1976. The OSTP advises the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the economy, national security, homeland security, health, foreign relations, and the environment.

In a recent May visit to Chicago, Dr. Nelson toured the science and tech facilities of Chicago State University and participated in a roundtable with leadership from Project Exploration, Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative. The Chicago Defender spoke with Dr. Nelson about her recent visit to Chicago and the White House’s mission in creating equity in STEM.

Chicago Defender: Can you talk to me about Biden’s administration strategy to advance equity in STEM?

Dr. Nelson:  On day one of the Biden-Harris administration, the very first executive order that the President issued was an executive order on advancing equity and using the work of government to advance equity in American society. While it was about racial equity, it also included other forms of equity as well.  There was something quite historic about an administration and its first articulation of itself to the public being centered around the issue of equity.  So it gave us an opportunity to think about issues of Science and Technology policy through an equity lens.

How do we have more diverse science and technology workplaces? How do we ensure that more opportunities for more people who want to work in science and technology are made available through the work of government, as well as using science and technology for equity? So are there ways that we can use innovations in science and technology to ensure that more people get access to health care services through things like telemedicine.

So it is an opportunity, and I think, a historic opportunity to take the President’s leadership and the Vice President’s leadership around equity and bring that into the center of the space of Science and Technology Policy.  That is the kind of larger guiding framework of our work here at OSTP. I believe that helps us to drive in more expansive ways, things around, national competitiveness, careers, economic opportunity, and prosperity for more people given that science and technology are the engines for all American and global society.

Chicago Defender: With your recent visit to Chicago, what were the goals and objectives of your time here?

Dr. Nelson: The goals and objectives were to think about in one place and a certain community, getting out of Washington and getting beyond the beltway. We wanted to listen and learn from communities who are thinking about science and tech and using innovative ways.  We wanted to learn and see more about the health professions and about the role of education, and career and workforce pathways with regards to these things, and finally to connect  with communities and networks of people who took equity in these things seriously. It was a learning experience for us and a chance to have an opportunity to talk about some of the administration’s priorities, in our Science and Technology Policy, and to hear and learn how we can partner with local communities across many sectors.

Chicago Defender:  During this trip, you also spoke with attorneys about artificial intelligence and how to protect the public.  What are some of the Biden administration’s initiatives when it comes to protecting privacy and artificial intelligence?

Dr. Nelson:  This is a priority for the Biden-Harris administration, and there is a growing awareness. Government is certainly an American society where artificial intelligence becomes more of an automated system and becomes more of a larger part of the work that we’re doing. In the last recent weeks, I think there has been a really promising movement on the part and leadership of the administration. For example, HUD and the Justice Department Department have issued guidance around housing, appraisals, and housing discrimination that presents strong language around what algorithmic discrimination should not be.  More recently, the DOJ and FCC released guidance on unemployment and the use of algorithms and automated systems in the employment space.

I’m really proud that the Biden-Harris administration has been, a real leader in making issues of civil rights and liberties with issues of science and technology and artificial intelligence a priority.

Chicago Defender: There’s a lot of talk about the incredible number of opportunities surrounding STEM. What is the White House Science Office doing to draw more people into STEM education and into sustainable careers?

Dr. Nelson: Thank you for that question so much, because this is one of the things that we are working very hard on and care so much about. Last year, we had we started an initiative called the time is now advancing equity in science and technology.  The point of this initiative was to identify, develop and amplify the kind of interventions that can make science and technology, education, and workforce pathways, more equitable and more accessible. We’ve been talking to many different communities and stakeholders. Certainly part of my visit to the Chicagoland area was to learn more about how folks are succeeding. What are the best practices around a really inclusive accessible  STEM ecosystem? And are there things to learn there that we might scale to the national level?

So we have been working on this for almost a year and we plan to release a national STEM equity strategy. We will also have some kind of public roundtables, working with different sectors to think about best practices and to work together much like the model that we see with Project exploration to form a strategy that links together these different sectors and the education cases, the public education and community education pieces, and also the workforce pieces. And the goal here is we want to have sustainable opportunities for as many people in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and Health Professions as we possibly can. But also people need to be able to do it in a way that is supportive, that helps them to thrive. And also understand that you know, there should be various kinds of pathways and bridges on and off the STEM trajectory.

So, you know, it should be okay for someone to, you know, to go and have to take care of an elderly parent or to have to take time off for child care and not have to, you know, think that they can no longer have a pathway to STEM in some capacity. So the question is, what is the role of government and helping to coordinate and really raise national conversation and national attention,? What government needs to do in partnership with the nonprofit sector, public schools, the museum and Science Center sector, philanthropy, and others to make the conditions possible for people to have a kind of thriving, life in science and technology and whatever way that makes sense for them. This administration takes equity really seriously as part of its policymaking and all of the work of policymaking.





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