Biden Makes Quick Moves to Get Social Science In Administration

In the lead-up and first days of his administration, the new U.S. president has made – or been presented – several moves that support social and behavioral science, including creating the nation’s highest ever advisory position with a specifically social science portfolio.

The most overtly pro-social science move – and pro-science in general – was the pre-inauguration announcement of Joe Biden’s science team and the elevation of its head to the Cabinet level. Biden on January 16 introduced his proposed leadership for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, proposing geneticist Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as its director. Lander co-chaired the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) from 2009-17, and as head of OSTP will serve as the president’s top adviser on science.

In naming the team, Biden also raised its profile.  “For the first time in history,” he said, “I’m going to be elevating the presidential science adviser to a Cabinet rank, because we think it’s that important.”

Alondra Nelson
Alondra Nelson

While the or OSTP didn’t go away under the Donald Trump administration, its impact was clearly less than during the earlier Obama Administration or seen in similar groups in most industrialized countries. For example, meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, the departing head of the OSTP, was not nominated until a year and half into Trump’s four-year term of office, and not approved until the last few hours of the 115th Congress on January 2, 2019.

Biden is also enhancing the role of social science specifically via OSTP. He proposed sociologist Alondra Nelson, currently the president of the Social Science Research Council and Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, for a newly created position: Deputy Director for Science and Society. The Consortium of Social Science Associations reports that while “details about the scope of this role are not yet available,” the new position like is broader and more senior than the role of assistant director for social, behavioral and economic sciences, a position last filled under Obama.

“For an academic whose work stands at the intersection of technology, science and our social fabric, there is no mistaking the power and meaning of the moment we are living through today,” Nelson said in the announcement event (skip to 21:30 in the video above to view). “Of course, science and technology have permeated nearly every aspect of our lives throughout the course of human history, but perhaps never before in living memory have the connections between our scientific world and our social world been quite so stark as they are today.”

Many of Nelson’s peers and former students were quick to praise Nelson’s appointment. “I’m especially excited because of Dr. @alondra’s intersectional expertise in ethics, social science, and technical sciences,” tweeted science communications expert Niveen Abi Ghannam. “Could not think of a better person to lead national efforts to steer and apply science for the public good.”  

While Nelson’s role at the Social Science Research Council put a premium on her leadership skills, she has a strong background in research. As detailed in last October’s Social Science Bites podcast, she’s also spent close to two decades unraveling the story of consumer genetic testing, accounts of which resulted in two of her books, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.

“[I] can’t say strongly enough what a relief it is to be able to genuinely say “you know the incoming official on this topic? she’s written many landmark works on this stuff that you should read”. god. what a relief,” tweeted anthropologist Ali Alkhatib.

Nelson also acknowledged a focus on diversity and equality in the sciences (a focus made sharper after criticism that arose when Lander, a white male, was named director). “As a Back woman researcher, I am keenly aware of those who are missing from these rooms,” she said. “I believe we have a responsibility to work together to make sure that our science and technology reflect us and when it does it truly reflects all of us, that it reflects who we truly are together. This too is a breakthrough; this too is an innovation that advances our lives. We have an incredible window of opportunity ahead of us to approach our science and technology policy in ways that are honest and inclusive, to bring the full strength of our communities, our experiences, our concerns and our aspirations as we think through emergent forms of science and technology. There has never been a more important moment to get scientific development right or to situate that development in our values of equality, accountability, justice and trustworthiness.”

Other key members of the advisory team named by Biden are Frances H. Arnold and Maria Zuber, external co-chairs of PCAST; Kei Koizumi, chief of staff; and Narda Jones as legislative affairs director.

Census changes

Biden also moved to address outstanding issues from the 2020 Census, which has been tripped up by the twin plagues of politics and the pandemic. One of the flurry of executive orders he signed on his first day in office addressed the battered decennial count. His order revokes a Trump executive order and memorandum that would collect information about noncitizens in the U.S. and then exclude people from apportionment counts based on their immigration status. The order re-affirmed the traditional reading of the Constitutional mandate to count “whole persons,” and also called for ensuring that the data in the census “is accurate and complies with all applicable laws.”

While those may seem anodyne goals, all seemed challenged during the Trump administration’s oversight of the Census Bureau. One of the enablers of that oversight made a quick departure from his role this week.

On the same day in 2019 that the Senate approved Droegemeier as Trump’s head of the OSTP, the Senate also confirmed Steven Dillingham as director of the U.S. Census Bureau – a position that had already been vacant for a year. His term as head was marked by an unprecedented politicization of the Census Bureau, initially over using the census as a tool for immigration control and later over concerns that the 2020 Census would not count the “whole persons” required by its constitutional mandate. While Dillingham is a career civil servant, he was increasingly seen as a vessel for Trump’s political maneuvering.

Ultimately, the immigration issue – specifically, pressuring Census staff to produce a technical report on undocumented persons in the United States –seems to have proved Dillingham’s undoing. He announced on January 18 that he would step on January 20, 11 months before the end of his official term. Dillingham did not cite the report, or the investigation into the what has been called a “statistically indefensible” document, in his departure message.  

Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau’s deputy director, will resume his role as acting director of the bureau until a permanent replacement is confirmed.

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