A New Compact for S&T Policy
A DISCUSSION OF“Science and Technology Now Sit in the Center of Every Policy and Social Issue”
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Since I came to Congress in 1993, increasing diversity in science and technology has been a driving focus of mine. I know from experience that talent is everywhere and that far too often students from underserved communities are left behind. Unfortunately, while I and many passionate leaders such as Alondra Nelson, the deputy director for science and society in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, have spent our careers working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and medicine—the STEM fields—there is still so much more to be done. Nelson ably presented some of the challenges in her recent Issues interview (Fall 2021). Through my leadership of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, I have listened to Nelson and numerous other experts and have reframed the problem, and the suite of solutions available to us.
Inclusive innovation is not just about representation. It is not just about creating new opportunities and breaking down barriers for historically marginalized groups to enter and remain in STEM fields, although that is a necessary step. To promote STEM diversity and equity, I developed the STEM Opportunities Act, the MSI STEM Achievement Act, and the Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEM Act. My committee also developed the Rural STEM Education Act and the Regional Innovation Act to address the geographic diversity of innovation.
But diversity alone will not catalyze the paradigm shift we need to see. We need to rethink, at the highest levels, how we prioritize our investments in science and technology. To date, national security and economic competitiveness have dominated the discussion. This focus has served the nation well in many ways, but it has failed to address many of the challenges Americans are facing in their lives. We are faced with a web of complex and interconnected societal challenges ripe for innovative solutions—access to safe drinking water, gaping economic inequality, misinformation, addiction and mental health crises, climate change, and the list goes on. For too many Americans, science and technology is an abstraction that has no bearing on their daily lives. I echo Alondra Nelson’s call for increased transparency and accountability in US science and technology policy. And I commend President Biden for establishing the Science and Society Division at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Last year, led by my committee, Congress enacted legislation to establish a National Artificial Intelligence Initiative that has trustworthiness, transparency, equity, fairness, and diversity as core principles. I will make full use of my final year as a member of Congress and Chairwoman of the Science Committee to advance the congressional conversation around inclusive innovation. Already, I have proposed that the new Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships Directorate at the National Science Foundation be focused not only on competing with China, but on addressing the full breadth of challenges we face. Moreover, the legislation I introduced pushes NSF to take a much more expansive view of who gets to have input to the research agenda. We cannot let China set our agenda. We lead only by being the best possible version of ourselves. I believe we should steer our science and technology policy toward that goal and that, in doing so, we will strengthen this country, and its innovative capacity, from the inside out.
Eddie Bernice Johnson
Member, US House of Representatives (D-TX)
Chairwoman, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
In her interview, Alondra Nelson lays out her vision for what it means to bring social science knowledge to the work the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will undertake. The creation of its new Science and Society Division and the selection of Nelson to lead it are exceptionally welcome initiatives of the Biden-Harris administration’s agenda. As a renowned expert with deep knowledge about the links among science and technology, social inequities, and access inequalities, Nelson is ideally situated to bring social science to this policy table. Reflecting sociologists’ value commitments, her vision is anchored in a serious concern for justice, access, inclusion, and transparency.
I would like to highlight two points from her interview, as neither seems to have been prioritized in previous initiatives of science and technology policy. First and foremost is her vision for inclusivity, equality, and justice. This vision incorporates efforts to embrace all who are interested in studying and then working in technology, regardless of socioeconomic, racial, or any other form of inequality, including, I would like to imagine, immigration background. Her broad tent for inclusivity also seeks to incorporate in technology policy the diverse approaches, thinking, innovation, and creativity that those from different social backgrounds may bring to solving a problem or creating policy. In this thoroughly globalized world in which we are increasingly aware of the harms of exclusion, this is perhaps key to progress but also to a more just society that broadly foments equality and inclusion. Nelson’s vision goes to the core of what is needed to confront the challenges of this moment in history. I see it encapsulated in her description of what she would like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—to look like: “to look like all of us, that reflects all of us, in the classroom and in the boardroom.”
Second, I want to remark on another aspect of her broad vision for inclusivity, and that is to incorporate social science knowledge as key to technological innovation and attend to the effects of technological advancements. Social science can shed light on the tensions in society that Nelson mentions, and how to reconcile them to create more equitable conditions to expand opportunities for all. Social science research is also equipped to contribute knowledge on how organizations and institutions work; it can provide critical research on organizational culture and on how team members’ social characteristics shape organizational hierarchies, which often determine the success of a project and ultimately better policy solutions. It can also help to illuminate the social effects of new technologies and how they may reconfigure human interaction.
We in the social science fields look with excitement to the many possibilities for science and technology to progress in equitable, just, and inclusive fashion with Alondra Nelson in the lead. With a sociologist at the helm of this new top-level division, we trust that our value commitments as sociologists will be reflected in progressive, transparent, and just policy for all.
Dorothy L. Meier Chair in Social Equities
Department of Sociology
University of California, Los Angeles
President, American Sociological Association, 2021–2022
Alondra Nelson highlights the importance of science, and social science in particular, for developing effective interventions across all policy domains. We applaud the Biden administration for elevating the Office of Science and Technology Policy to cabinet level and for bringing Nelson’s expertise as a social scientist into the upper echelon of its leadership. As Nelson noted, science and technology policy in the United States has not historically incorporated all voices or responded well to the needs of all Americans. We share her assertion that community partnership is fundamental for moving the nation forward in a more inclusive and equitable way.
From our point of view as sociologists, Nelson’s focus on involving communities in the policymaking process is an important step toward achieving racial and social justice. Such a focus goes beyond simply informing communities about policy initiatives or getting feedback from community members after implementation. Rather, policymakers should seek to understand the needs of communities from community members and engage communities directly in creating and articulating the kinds of interventions that can most effectively address those needs.
There is a long tradition of community-based sociological scholarship, but it has often been marginalized. Our sense, as supported by Nelson’s comments, is that such work is increasingly central not only within our discipline but within the academy more broadly. The American Sociological Association (ASA) has sought to elevate this work, including running a longstanding funding program for research collaborations between sociologists and community partners, and the Winter 2022 issue of our online magazine, Footnotes, is devoted to community-focused research. Universities, including Syracuse University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin, have begun to prioritize and reward community-focused research in recommendations for tenure and promotion.
Also important for generating more equitable and inclusive policy is the training of the next generation of community-focused scholars. Students of color often enter graduate school with aspirations of studying issues that affect the communities from which they originate. The ASA is committed to supporting graduate students of color in their research endeavors through the Minority Fellowship Program, a predoctoral fellowship initiative that has funded more than 450 fellows across almost 50 years. Programs such as this can play an important role in diversifying the scientific workforce and serve to bring scholars and communities into the policymaking process who have often been excluded.
Our hope is that institutional support—from scholarly societies, colleges and universities, the top levels of government, and beyond—will indeed move the scientific enterprise as a whole toward incorporating true understanding of and consideration for all populations into the policymaking process. Such a shift would be entirely consistent with what sociologists have known for a long time and Alondra Nelson has illuminated: humans are at the center of all science. Failing to incorporate the full range of human voices into policy development is not an option if we seek a truly democratic nation.
Heather M. Washington
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
American Sociological Association